Twisted Christmas 

A look at the darker side of the holiday

Peek beneath the shiny wrappings, look behind the tinsel, candles and cookies, and peer beyond the religious observances, and you'll find Christmas isn't as wholesome as you may have thought. Sure, it's most commonly associated with the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, but at the true roots of the holiday is a collection of pagan celebrations marking the winter solstice. Those ancient rituals, what we celebrate as Christmas traditions, were co-opted as Christian missionaries tried to convert the heathens. In that spirit, Boise Weekly offers a glimpse behind the Christmas curtain.

The Krampus

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

No holiday legend is quite as dark as the Krampus­--a demon said to lurk through the wilderness of the Germanic Alps across Austria, Hungary and Bavaria.

Named after the old High German word "krampen" for "claws," the Krampus is Santa Claus' foil, punishing the wicked before Santa swoops in with his bag of goodies.

Krampus started as a forest deity in the oldest myths, but his classification turned to demon over time. He comes out on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, Dec. 6, to punish those who had done wrong. With whip in hand, he chases them through the streets and strikes a fair bit of fear in the hearts of naughty children. Some stories say Krampus drags the occasional child back into the forest with him, never to be seen again.

The good news for those who survived Krampus' visit: Santa was still to come.

These days, Krampus is making a bit of a comeback, especially in Austria, where groups of people dress in elaborate costumes, complete with demonic horns, sheepskins and rusty chains. Alcohol plays a known role in modern Krampus celebrations, as revelers take over the streets.

Innocent Decorations?

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

They seem all festive and pretty, but did you know many of the plants used in modern-day holiday decorating are actually poisonous?

Mistletoe has been used in decorations and in rituals for centuries. Ancient Celts believed it boosted virility--a belief that led to the practice of kissing beneath it. In some traditions, a single berry was taken off the sprig with each kiss, but it's those berries that can kill.

It's the same story with holly. The shiny red berries that seem so festive in the darkness of winter can lead to some unpleasant side effects.

As for the yule log, the tradition dates back to the ancient Norse, who used roaring fires in their celebration of the return of the sun after the winter solstice. The hearth is still a favorite of Christmas celebrations.

Christmas Tree

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

Back in the day, Saxon Germans would gather around a fir tree to honor Odin. But St. Boniface, the overachieving missionary he was, decided to cut it down to show the non-Christians that the tree did not possess any supernatural powers. He then encouraged them to bring it inside, decorate it with candles and turn it into a Christian tradition.

Black Peter

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

The Netherlands is home to one of the more racially sensitive holiday traditions. There, a character known as Black Peter is said to accompany Sinterklaas via steamship from their home in Spain for a few weeks of celebration in Holland.

Early versions of the story portray Black Peter as Santa's personal slave, but over the centuries, changing sensibilities have turned him into Santa's helper. In fact, Santa is usually accompanied by numerous Black Peters, all of whom are dressed in 17th century Spanish clothing--pantaloons and all.

The character is usually played by a Dutch man in blackface, which has led to cries of racism. Some supporters of Black Peter say his face is black because he's the one who slides down the chimneys.

Black Peter does have a darker side to his job. Whenever Santa and Black Peter come across a naughty child, it's Black Peter who, in legend, takes the bad child out back and beats him or her with a switch or stick.

Occasionally--in cases of very bad children, we assume--he is said to stuff them in a sack and take them back to Spain, where they are either forced to make toys for the good children, or are occasionally murdered.

These days, legend holds that Black Peter will only pretend to kick you.

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