It’s the 6th of December (well at least for another 20 minutes so I better get this post up soon), which means that in various European countries it’s all about Saint Nicholas celebrations! In Holland the 5th of December is the big night for Saint Nicholas celebrations, and I put my shoe out at the fireplace last night to find a pressie in it in the morning! It goes to show that even though I’ve moved to London, Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas in Dutch) hasn’t forgotten about me, although he must have forgotten some of the things I’ve got up to this year or he would’ve given me a bag of Brussels sprouts instead like he once did when I was 5 after having been very naughty. I cried my eyes out.
In other countries like Germany, Poland and Austria it’s the 6th. While in Holland Saint Nicholas’ companion is Zwarte Piet, in some Eastern and Central European countries it’s a devil-like figure called the Krampus (which means ‘claw’ in Old German). The Krampus originated from Germanic folklore, and managed to survive despite Catholic campaigns to stamp him out. When that didn’t work, they paired him up with Saint Nicholas, gave him a more devil-like appearance as part of a Christian make-over, with chains for accessories to show that the Church had managed to bind him and that he was now a faithful servant of Saint Nicholas. Nothing like a bit of propaganda.
I love the old Krampus greeting cards people used to send out this time of year, although I don’t remember having ever seen them in Holland. Most of them have German greetings (the Krampus is massively popular in Austria), and there’s something comically grotesque about how the Krampus goes after innocent little children and buxom women to punish or scare them. And while it would be easy to think of saints and devils as natural adversaries, the postcards here show that Saint Nick and Old Nick are in fact the best of friends, working side by side to make sure everyone gets their just desserts – I can just imagine them high-fiving each other afterwards and having a good old laugh at the expense of man. And so they should.
Fijne Sinterklaas! / Happy Saint Nicholas!
For my previous post on Krampus festivities, click here.
I just found this short documentary by ROAR Media about the Mamuthones Parade, which is part of the San Antonio Festival celebrations in the Sardinian village of Mamoiada every January. Click on the link below, orhere.
The Mamuthones, wearing black masks and around 20kg of iron and bronze bells, represent different manifestations of evil, while the Issohadores represent the forces of good that have come to exorcise evil and bring good luck.
The christian legend of San Antonio going down into hell to steal fire from the devil is itself based on the original Greek myth of Prometheus stealing the fire from Mount Olympus. Fire itself has many different meanings: in mythology, it often represents the spirit, an idea that is echoed in the depictions of the sacred heart in catholic imagery.
The idea of Hell itself as ‘a lake of fire’ where souls are eternally barbecued is very much a simplified Christian concept – the fire was a metaphor for cleansing, not punishment, and this was a temporary process, not ever-lasting. As for the origins of Hell, that’s a whole other story that deserves a post of its own!
This is a statue of Lucifer by Ricardo Bellver (1845–1924) , a Spanish sculptor, on display in Madrid’s Retiro park. Statues of Lucifer or fallen angels are usually depicted at the mercy of Saint Michael’s feet and sword, so it’s unusual to see such a work where the forces of Heaven are implied rather than shown. It’s even more unusual to have such a figure on display in a public park, as Bellver’s is.
But did Lucifer really fall from heaven after rebelling against God? Is this Lucifer the same as the Satan from the Old Testament, or the Devil from the new testament? If you take a closer look (the devil is in the details) you’ll find they are all very different…
The Krampus Lauf (or Devil Run) is a yearly event that takes place in Austria, Germany and other European countries. A 500-year-old tradition based on the Christian figure of St. Nicholas, the Krampus is a devil that the saint unleashes to punish the bad. At the Krampus Lauf, people dress up in the most elaborate costumes and wear cow bells, chasing others down the streets, some even breathing fire. Imagine some poor unsuspecting tourist whose had a schnapps too many…
Here is a video from a previous year, skip to 2:33 to see a devil emerge from a huge fire.