He’s a family favorite now, but Santa Claus has a chequered past and shady associations. The mixed roots of this jolly, rotund figure, which currently personifies the essence of Good, are reflected in the nature of his helpers. They are not just Elves and Reindeer, but include less than benevolent characters who are, in some cases, plainly devilish.
Origins of Santa: The Wild Hunt
In Northern and Central European countries, our beloved, portly Santa had his origins in the much less-substantial spectral characters who were believed to lead the Wild Hunt. This was a supernatural event which people believed took place across the night sky, where they saw the souls of the dead, faeries and various other-wordly creatures on horseback giving chase, often against an unfortunate animal or woman.
The Hunt leader was, sometimes, the Germanic deity Odin. Later this folk belief became linked to a more benevolent figure, St Nicholas of Myra. He was reputed to be a kind and brave bishop, who put gifts through children’s windows and helped the poor. According to one of the many legendary feats attributed to him, across different European countries Nicholas saved two children who had been killed by an evil butcher by bringing them back to life. The butcher then oddly became his helper on St Nicholas’ night. In Belgium, he is known as Père Fouettard, or Whipping Father. He follows St Nicholas around; as St. Nick gives good children presents, Père Fouettard whips the bad ones.
Santa’s Alter Ego(s)
So, like the quintessential, archetypal Superhero that he is, St Nicholas, or Santa, needs villainous counterparts who justify his presence and, essentially, make him look good. Similar evil characters are found in different guises across Northern, Central and even Southern Europe.
- In the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) threatens and punishes children who have been naughty, as a menacing servant to Santa.
- In Italy, the Befana, a witch-like old woman, brings presents to good children on 6th January but is not to be toyed with: she whacks ‘bad’ children with her broom and puts a lump of coal in their stocking.
- In Scandinavia, the Yule Goat, a, well, goat- like creature, roams villages ensuring decorations and preparations for Christmas are taking place correctly, like a kind of a menacing Reindeer.
In many Alpine countries such as Slovenia, Croatia and Austria, the Krampus, a horned, terrifying devil-like creature complete with cloven feet and a tail follows Santa, or Nicholas, and, while the latter delivers presents to the good children, Krampus hits the naughty ones with birch twigs or rods. In some countries Krampus is thought to actually carry particularly bad children away to hell with him.
Krampus is sometimes accompanied by the Perchten, female horned creatures who also roam towns and villages and punish bad children by slitting their stomachs open and putting stones inside them. Krampus and Percthen ‘runs’ are often re-enacted in Alpine villages during St Nicholas night, which is usually held on 6th December. Young men dressed in fearsome horned masks go round pranking or chasing hapless bystanders, often targeting young women, and feign hitting them with birch twigs.
The Krampus and associated traditions were actually banned in Austria during the Nazi regime, but they seem to have enjoyed a gradual revival ever since. It is interesting that Santa, or Nicholas, doesn’t appear to object particularly strongly to these monsters, or defend the youngsters. On the contrary, throughout the ages, the scary and the benevolent characters have operated as a kind of primordial ‘bad cop- good cop” double act, with parents encouraging their children to believe in both, and using the ‘Bad Santas’ freely as a deterrent to bad behaviour.
How Santa got his Claws
These curiously malevolent aspects highlight Pagan origins, which incorporate good and bad, life and death, ends and beginnings. Zwarte Piet’s association with darkness, and scariness, also seems to have its roots in the Wild Hunt, when black crows are said to have followed Odin across the night sky.
Later, in medieval times, Piet became a tamed devil enslaved by Nicholas, and in more recent, colonial times, a dark complexioned servant, very likely to have been modelled at least in part on a stereotyped European idea of the appearance of the colonised peoples in the African and Asian continent. The Befana originates from a Pagan goddess from Central Italy, Strenia. She was the goddess of the New Year in Roman times, and she brought gifts to celebrate this event. Strenia’s feast was a sensual, uninhibited celebration.
Later, Christianity created legends which turned Strenia into the Befana but linked her to the birth of Baby Jesus through painful experiences: She was a woman who lost her child, or childless, or who missed the holy birth and never got over it. Both Zwarte Piet and the Befana are given a second chance at goodness by virtue of their association with Santa.
How Santa Got his Horns
The Percthen also originate from an Alpine Goddess of spinning and renewal called Berchta, who originally was even believed to have led the Wild Hunt. Later she became a malevolent figure. The horned appearance of the Perchten, the Krampus, and the Yule Goat is very likely to be linked to pre-Christian, ancient indo-European, Egyptian and Celtic horned divinities: the Roman Pan, the Celtic Cernunnos, the Egyptian Hathor, Apis the horned bull and the Middle Eastern Baal, the Greek and Nubian Amun, to name only a few.
These are all divinities which eventually inspired the visual images of the Christian Devil. So it would appear that, rather than being an evil twin, Krampus is more like a part of Santa’s multicultural extended family. And have you ever wondered why Santa always wears a hat? Perhaps the horns really do run in the family…