Blog Post 217 – North American Winter Monsters

(Author as Winter Monster, 2016 Philadelphia Parade of Spirits)

To those who follow this site and my work, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the Krampus. If you aren’t quite sure what that is, he’s the diabolical and fearsome companion to St. Nicholas found primarily in Alpine parts of Europe like Austria’s Bad Gastein. He travels with the Saint, often wearing chains to symbolize the triumph of the holy over the wicked (but also because they rattle and make noise, which is why many Krampussen also wear cow bells of ridculous sizes on their furry costumes). The Krampus–usually portrayed by a young man from the village, or several young men in the case of trooping Krampussen (“many-Krampus-ed”) groups–then threatens children for any naughtiness that might be in their wee permanent records, while the Saint hands out gifts and mercy, restraining his hellish compatriot.

The figure of the Krampus intrigues me, because I have always enjoyed the holiday season as both one of light and one of darkness. We often see the glitz of Christmas lights or Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, but we sometimes forget this is also the time of year for those “scary ghost stories” mentioned in the famous song about just where we are in the ranking of wonderful times of the year (hint: it’s the most). I even love Krampus so much that I essentially did my doctoral dissertation on him (well, the amazing Parade of Spirits in Philadelphia, which began as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus procession” in its early years). I also love his other cousins in the European pantheon of winter terror: Pere Foutard from France or Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) from the Low Countries in North Central Europe. There are also figures like the belly-slicing Perchta (or Berchta) in German-speaking regions, or the Icelandic ogress Gryla. The Italian Christmas witch La Befana is always fun (unless you make her mad), and the trooping Tomten from Scandinavia or the Yule Lads from Iceland also bring a good bit of ruckus into the fray. These figures are all on the ascendancy in popular culture, too, with Krampus, Gryla, and the Yule Lads showing up in last year’s holiday episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a fairly popular (if somewhat off-kilter) film called Krampus released back in 2015, and references in shows like American Dad and Grimm. If you are interested in the history and variety of these creatures, I highly recommend both Al Ridenour’s The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (2016) and Linda Raedisch’s The Old Magic of Christmas (2013). And, of course, you could always listen to our previous episodes on Krampus and Christmas monsters (which feature both of those authors).

Recently, however, I’ve seen an article from 2014 bouncing around various social media feeds discussing the lack of such holiday monstrosities on this side of the Atlantic. The write-up, from author Caitlin Hu on the Quartz site, claims that “Christmas in America has…lost its dark side,” pointing toward Puritan movements against the holiday and efforts to sanitize it over the past two centuries. Some of this she lays at the feet of Clement Clark Moore, widely believed to have been the author of the famed “Visit from St. Nicholas” poem more commonly known by its opening lines, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Hu specifically covers a lot of the monsters found in Europe (with some stellar photos of various Krampussen), and does mention a few candidates from North America, but here I would push back just a bit and say that our dance with the devils of December (and January) hardly ended with the appearance of Moore’s “jolly old elf.”

While it is largely true that our side of the pond has much less in the way of masked revelers parading in devilish costume during the holiday season (although not entirely true, as I will show in a moment), we still have our fair share of weird and wicked beasties roaming around in the cold and snowy months. In the sections below, I have outlined in very brief form a number of such winter creatures in our lands. They are quite different from their Old World counterparts in some cases, although in other examples the connections will be crystal clear (or at least clearer than a stocking full of coal). Before we get to the Old World, however, we should probably start with what was here to begin with.

Coyote – One of the big misses in the Quartz article is the wide swing around indigenous winter monsters. To be fair, Hu’s aim was much more squarely at the Christmas devils associated with European folklore of St. Nicholas, so it’s not really surprising that Native figures like the trickster Coyote was off of the radar. But Native storytellers from a vast variety of tribes have long-standing associations and taboos about telling tales in winter. Nations like the Ho-Chunk of the Wisconsin area or the Blackfoot in Central and Western Canada restrict certain stories to the months when snow is on the ground. The Acoma Pueblo people specifically hold their stories about the wily, tricksy, and sometimes extremely dangerous Coyote until those winter months. I’m actually avoiding linking any Coyote stories directly here because of those taboos, and even famed folklorist Barre Toelken destroyed many of his notes on Pueblo and Dine (Navajo) stories because of those restrictions once the time for reading them had passed. In general, Coyote’s character is one of cunning and deception, but also occasional help, and he is fanged and furry, which makes him a good candidate for a Winter Monster, if you belong to a cultural group that recognizes him.

The Wendigo – Another Native figure of snow-bound terror is the Ojibwe Wendigo. This is a monster a bit like a werewolf in some tellings, or a bit like a vampire or incubus in others. The Wendigo–sometimes found in variations among tribes like the Cree and Saulteaux–haunts wild places in the winter and is sometimes thought to have a heart of ice. It is enormous and gaunt, and usually represents a human who violated a cultural taboo (often cannibalism) to become a hunter of men in the frozen months. In this case the winter paucity of food may be what ironically creates the Wendigo, as it might drive a desperate person to consume their fellow humans. The Wendigo can often lure you by calling your name, as in perhaps the most well-known variation of the story found in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark called “Burning Feet,” itself based on Algernon Blackwood’s loose adaptation of Native folklore.

The Belsnickel – For fans of the hit TV show “The Office,” the Belsnickel will be immediately recognizable. Pennsylvania Dutch farmer Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) shows up for the office holidays dressed as the fur-clad, soot-covered creature, inquiring if all present have been “Impish” or “Admirable.” While the show plays the character for laughs, the Belsnickel was a fairly common figure in the Pennsylvania Dutch (or German-speaking) regions of the eastern and central United States. There is some speculation that he is essentially the merging of the Krampus-like devils of the Old World and St. Nicholas, with his name essentially deriving from pelz (meaning “furs”) and Nikolas (for the saint), thus making him a “furry St. Nick” of sorts. However, the path from the Old World to the new is not linear, and in many ways the Belsnickel is a distinctively North American figure and arguably the progenitor of our concepts of Santa Claus (with a little help from Moore’s poem, Dutch influences, and the work of commercial artist Thomas Nast in the nineteenth century). He often represents the phase of life between youth and adulthood, played by and older teen or young twenty-something boy who has outgrown other holiday activities but who still wants to participate (and get some alcohol on the side, since the houses he’d visit would usually buy his departure with a drink). Hu incorrectly asserts in her article that “the Belsnickel is practically extinct” (her italics). While he has seen a decline, the Belsnickel shows up in a number of places, including Canada, where folklorist Richard Bauman found people doing Belsnickel processions in Nova Scotia in the 1960s and 70s. Numerous accounts in regional newspapers and magazines like The Pennsylvania Dutchman recall Belsnickel encounters in the mid-twentieth century, and Gerald Milnes found evidence of Belsnickling groups in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia well into the twentieth century, where it was sometimes also called Kriss Kringling. While the figure is not as widespread as he once was, even where I live there are two Belsnickels operating out of local history museums in central Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular feature at the Philadelphia Parade of Spirits as well.

The Jersey Devil – I’m sure there are people already clutching their Snooki-designed pearls at this one, but hear me out. Much of the lore regarding the famed “Leeds Devil” situates its main activity during the winter months, especially December and January (I count January as the holiday season because a number of “Old Christmas” traditions extend into that month). There’s the famed (if unproven) encounter between the exiled Joseph Bonaparte and the Devil in the early nineteenth century, usually related as occurring while the ground is covered in snow. The most famous outbreak of sightings happened during the week of January 16th-23rd in 1909 all throughout the Delaware Valley, even as far as Philadelphia. These attacks also get the Devil associated with a Maryland Winter Monster called the Snallygaster. A Greenwich, New Jersey encounter apparently happened sometime in early December, based on the date it was reported (in a copy of the Dec. 15th Daily Times of Woodbury) and another run-in was reported “one winter night” in 1972.  There are certainly also non-winter encounters with this figure, but a lot of the lore seems to show it as most highly active during the winter months, so why not embrace the Jersey Devil as a Winter Monster, too?

The Beast of Bladenboro – In late December and early January of 1953-1954, the town of Bladenboro, North Carolina was terrorized by a “beast,” thought to be some kind of vampiric canine or feline, although plenty of people speculate it may have been a bear as well. Whatever the creature was, it managed to kill several pets and farm animals and raised the alarm among the townspeople. Most reports of the creature seemed to ascribe monstrous proportions to its shape, and when a local farmer eventually killed a large bobcat and claimed the terror was over, few believed that to be the case. The Beast of Bladenboro made only this one appearance, but has gone on to inspire a local celebration called Beast Fest, traditionally held late in October (yes, a bit early for “official” Winter Monster status, but between the Halloween and Christmas timing of the festival and the creature’s alleged attacks, it seems like at least a semi-viable candidate). The creature’s resemblance to a cat or a dog is also notable, as there are long-standing traditions of monstrous Yule Cats and sinister Christmas werewolf lore in the Old World as well (see Linda Raedisch’s book for a great section on both beasts).

These are hardly the only critters we could list, of course. Each region will have its variations and changes (for example, Snallygasters vs. Jersey Devils and the Belsnickels of Canada vs. the Belsnickels of Lancaster County, PA). Yet these monsters represent a long-held and lingering tendency for people to crave the darker side of the holidays, even as they are embracing the light. As Al Ridenour puts it when discussing the long-standing tradition of terrifying children with Krampussen, “A child’s delight in a certain measure of fear never goes out of style” (p. 248). It’s all well and good to have your tinsel and brightly-wrapped packages under the tree, but maybe consider hanging a local monster in the branches. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a glaring Jersey Devil nestled among the lights, after all.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

References

Photo by Author. CC Share-and-share-alike license. Illustrations: “The Jersey Devil,” from Philadelphia Post (1909) (Wikimedia) ; Illustration from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (Onderdonk, 1848). Both images in the Public Domain.

Podcast 71 – Yuletide Cheer! 2014 (Part Two)

Podcast 71 – Yuletide Cheer! 2014 (Part Two)

Summary:
In the second holiday episode, we have a short documentary on the annual celebration of Krampuslauf in Philadelphia and an interview with author Linda Raedisch, who the book on Christmas monsters.

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 71

-Sources-
Check out the Krampuslauf Philadelphia webpage for more on that celebration. Many thanks to Amber Dorko Stopper and the entire Krampuslauf entourage for making space for me to do this documentary.

You hear Robert Schriewer (who was on a previous episode of our show as well) in the interviews. Please check out his book The First Book of Urglaawe Myths, and see the Urglaawe site for more information on Pennsylvania Deitsch Heathenry.

Big thanks are due to Timothy Essig of the Landis Valley Museum for his help and information as well.

We must recommend The Old Magic of Christmas, by Linda Raedisch, and we thank her highly for being on the show! Also check out her book on Walpurgisnacht as well.

I also highly recommend this little site, which explores several of the critters we discuss.

For information on the Belsnickel, I point you to Alfred Shoemaker’s Christmas in Pennsylvania and Earl Haag’s Pennsyvaanisch Deitsche, as well as Gerald C. Milnes’ Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Chris Bilardi’s Red Church and Jack Santino’s All Around the Year also informed this episode.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

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Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promos:

  1. Welcome to Night Vale

Down at the Crossroads

Blog Post 109 – Holidays in the Mountains

Hi there, everyone!

Today, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of holiday lore from the mountains, both the Ozarks and the Appalachians (to those readers wondering when I’ll start including the Rockies, I promise I’ll get there one day!  I’m just woefully ignorant of the traditions from that area).  There are a number of pieces of folklore associated with the winter holidays in the mountains.  Often, storytelling and family visits were the primary entertainment in the financially poor but folklore-and-culturally-rich mountains once the cold weather set in.  Christmas was not always celebrated, especially during the early years of settling, largely because many Protestants settling in the Appalachians viewed the holiday with suspicion and regarded it as a Catholic celebration.  One source records that the penalty for observing Christmas during the Puritan era was a “fine of five shillings” (WG&S, p.28).  Over time, however, as more people of mixed backgrounds settled the area, Christmas became a social holiday.  Patrick Gainer records that holidays in the mountains included:

  • Fireworks and noisemaking
  • Very little decorating prior to the widespread introduction of electricity (most homes didn’t have a Christmas tree)
  • School Christmas parties
  • Costumed visits to friends and neighbors (called “Belsnickling”—more on that in a minute)
  • Toys for children, though almost entirely homemade ones

Belsnickling

The tradition of Belsnickling is particularly interesting.  It seems to be a mumming tradition in the vein of similar British activities, but is really practiced by only the Germanic settlers in the Appalachians.  It relates to the Belsnickle (whose name may come from pelz Nicholas, or “furry Nick”), a devilish traveling companion to good St. Nick during his holiday visits who would punish the wicked children in the same way that the saint rewarded the good ones.  In some variations, it was not St. Nick who traveled with Belsnickle, but Kriss Kringle (likely a derivation from the Germanic kriskindl, or “Christ-child”).   Gerald Milnes describes the practice thusly:

“To people in the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing the belsnicklers’ identities…Sometimes treats were offered to the belsnicklers, and sometimes belsnicklers offered treats to the household” (SC&W, p.186)

Milnes also offers a variety of pranks and tricks related to this practice:

  • Candy would be thrown on the floor, and when children dove for it, they would have their fingers switched by the belsnicklers
  • Bands of belsnicklers would wander through the countryside hooting and yelling all through the night
  • People in costume would tap on the windows of houses and scare the children inside
  • Firecrackers would be lit and thrown into people’s homes

He also relates this practice back to something deeply witchy—the Wild Hunt:

“Belsnickling and similar activities, as group practices, have obscure beginnings, but they may well go back to the old Teutonic concept of the wild hunt.  In Scandinavian and German versions of this myth, a huntsman with dogs, accompanied by spirits, hunts the wild woman.  In some versions, the huntsman, a lost soul, leads a band of wild spirits to overrun farms at Christmas time (the winter solstice)” (SC&W, p. 186).

Christmas Dinner in the Mountains

Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a feast in modern minds, but the table offerings were not quite the same for every family.  Often, up in the mountains in the early-to-midwinter, the meal would consist on the wild meat that was available rather than anything domestically raised.  In Foxfire 12, informant John Huron describes a most particular holiday meal:

“Groundhogs aren’t bad eatin’ either if you cook them right…baked and layered with onions and sweet potatoes.  That was what Charlie’s daughter, Margaret, would fix him for Christmas dinner every year.  They invited me and my wife, Sandy, and my son, Jay, over for Christmas dinner one time, and that’s what we had.  A groundhog is a lot cleaner animal than a chicken.  When you get right down to it, a chicken is a nasty critter” (FF12, p.248)

Signs and Omens on Christmas

There are a number of superstitions which have sprung up around the holiday season, too.  Often, weather and luck are intimately tied to Christmas, though sometimes the date shifts a little between December 25th (“New” Christmas) and January 6th (“Old” Christmas).  Some of the signs and omens from the Appalachians and Ozarks include:

  • It will be a fruitful year if the eaves of the house drip on Christmas (SC&W)
  • Children born on Christmas Day can understand the speech of animals (WG&S and OM&F)
  • Being the first to say “Christmas Gift” to another on Christmas Day yielded good luck (WG&S)
  • On Christmas Eve at midnight, all farm animals will bow down and speak to acknowledge Christ’s birth (SC&W and OM&F)
  • Those with the “second sight” make predictions most accurately on Christmas Eve (IaGaM)
  • “A green Christmas makes a fat graveyard” – warm weather at Christmas will lead to many deaths over the coming year (OM&F)
  • On Old Christmas, the sun actually rises twice instead of just once (OM&F)
  • Bees buzz so loudly on Old Christmas they can be heard for miles away (OM&F)
  • Elderberries always sprout on Old Christmas, no matter what the weather (OM&F)

Even with its rather slow, Puritanical start, Christmas in the mountains has become one of the most magically charged times of the year.  From eating groundhogs to playing rowdy pranks to witnessing the miraculous behavior of animals, this is certainly one of the most interesting times of the year.  And, in my humble opinion, one of the most magical.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory