Day 723: In Search Of Santa’s Dark Side

originally published December 23, 2013

I have to say, I’m still not sold. Yesterday I scoured the globe (from the comfort of my own ass of course; my budget is notoriously limited) in search of a legend worthy of usurping Santa Claus from his Christmas throne. And while racist helper-folk and roller-skating church-goers piqued my curiosity, I still don’t think I’ve found the winner.

Don’t get me wrong – Santa is delightful. But he’s Norman-Rockwell delightful, a gift-giver optimally suited for a more innocent and black & white era. He has no edge. And while the Scandinavian yule goat and prank-playing gnome may add a little spice to the season, neither legend really pokes at the armpit of my fancy. Maybe I’m too particular. Maybe with two kids who are old and cynical enough to not give a damn about mythical yuletide creatures I should simply give up caring about this stuff.

No, with another 850 words at my disposal today it only makes sense that I keep caring. Winter’s unrelenting smack has inspired numerous wonky characters and imaginative traditions. Why settle for a chubby chimney-slider with such a buffet of weirdness at your disposal?

With an appearance not unlike that of a devil-hamster stuck in a toilet paper roll, the Badalisc is a concoction of the long-ago residents of the Val Camonica, a rural valley in the heart of the Italian Alps. His job is to annoy the community in the days leading up to the Epiphany in early January. That’s when he gets marched into the village (traditionally Andrista, now the commune of Cevo), a prisoner of the people. A ‘signorina’ is used as sexual bait to lure the tube-hamster into the trap, then he engages in a ‘rustic duel’ with a hunchback. In the village square, people gather for the Badalisc’s speech.

If all this sounds a bit goofy and arbitrary, just wait. The Badalisc’s so-called speech is a rhyming piece of verse consisting of gossip about the villagers. Once the local populace’s shame has been suitably aired, everyone sings, dances and feasts. The Badalisc is then released on the next day, once everyone has been stuffed on cornmeal polenta and homemade salami, and once they are all enlightened about one another’s sins and misdoings.

I like the Badalisc – I see it as an old-school version of the “airing of grievances” portion of Festivus. Plus you get a rustic duel between a hunchback and a horned hamster on the program. This one is a winner.

Back before Christianity spread its images of bearded old men and smiling Claymation reindeer all over the season, things tended to look a little gruesome. Perchten are female masks meant to represent the goddess Frau Perchta, one of the ‘guardians of the beasts’ in Southern Germanic paganism. The tradition here doesn’t appear to be much more than strolling through the streets while wearing these masks, symbolizing the fate and souls of the dead.

I’ll be honest, it seems a little dry. There are no gifts, no songs, no airing of the village’s dirty laundry. The Roman Catholics tried to outlaw the Perchten ritual, claiming it was pagan and therefore evil. But they have since lightened up, probably figuring a bunch of people in ugly masks aren’t going to step on their religion’s toes.

Now here’s a tradition I can sink my hungry holiday teeth into. While Saint Nick goes around with presents for all the good girls and boys on his list, the Krampus has the naughty list, and he doles out punishment and anguish for all the rotten kids in the world. The Krampus is depicted as a snarly beast-creature, and young men in those regions influenced by old Germanic folklore – Austria, Bavaria, Slovenia, Croatia, etc. – dress in full costume and wander the streets with bells and chains. This ties in with the December 5 eve of Saint Nicholas Day, reminding all the children in the land that they have something to be pants-poopingly frightened of.

Krampus pre-dates Christian influence in the area, and his strange supernatural appearance has morphed quite handily into a representation of one of Satan’s minions, offering a counterbalance to the rewards of the season. Dressing up in full Krampus gear would be fun, as not only would you get to practice clomping along on cloven hooves but you’d also be required to carry the ruten – bundles of birch branches with which you can swat wayward children.

The Krampus often totes around a large sack for carting off evil children to be drowned, eaten, or tossed over the wall into the depths of hell. That said, I doubt that the young men who Krampus themselves up on December 5 are encouraged to actually eat children, even the really bitchy ones. When these guys are out on their Krampuslaufen, which is like a drunken pub-crawl in full costume, it is customary to offer them schnapps and send them on their way. Sometimes traditions get mixed and you’ll find Perchten wandering the streets alongside the Krampuses. Or Krampi. Whatever.

Another tradition with this story involves the exchange of Krampuskarten, or greeting cards featuring the evil beast, usually alongside some snidely comical text. The creature’s frightening visage is tempered in modern cards, as the notion of actually scaring someone with the Krampus story becomes more antiquated. Occasionally the cards feature a more rapey vibe, with the Krampus chasing buxom women. I’m not entirely clear as to how ‘evil children’ came to equate with ‘well-proportioned females’, but maybe something is simply lost in the translation here.

I don’t know. I guess the milquetoast ho-ho-hoing Santa could use a bit of yang to his yin, a darkness to balance out his insipidly perpetual light. As gruesome as it may sound – and it most certainly does – I kind of like the Krampus as a foil to Santa’s noble mission. Without him, what have we got? In the Rudolph song Santa is pushed to the brink of failure because of some fog. Really? If the weather was going to be that much of a nemesis to Santa’s annual endeavor, I think it would have come up pretty damn early on in his career. But if kids are going to be walking a metaphorical tightrope between a bounty of gifts and a thrashing by some devil-beast’s birch branches, they might just stay in line.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical about this whole thing. Perhaps I should steer away from a compelling narrative and just focus on the good in the Santa story. Besides, if things ever get too dull, I can always be reminded of that time when a nasty stomach bug kept Santa on the sidelines and Christmas was saved by that other hero of the holidays; Hanukkah Harry.

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