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,
- Bauman, Richard. “Belsnickling in a Nova Scotia Island Community,” Western Folklore, v.31, no.4 (October 1972), 229-243.
- Hutcheson, Cory Thomas. Christmas Monsters: The Philadelphia Parade of Spirits in Context. Dissertation. Pennsylvania State University, 2018.
- Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (University of Tennessee Press, 2007)
- Raedisch, Linda. The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year (Llewellyn, 2013)
- Ridenour, Al. The Krampus & the Old, Dark Christmas (Feral House, 2016)
- Sceurman, Mark, and Mark Moran. Weird N.J. (Weird Books/Sterling, 2009)
- Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania (50th Anniversary Ed.)(Stackpole Books, 2009).
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.
Who doesn’t like alliteration?
At the beginning of 2019, if you were following me/us on social media, then you saw me post a photo of a stack of books and a long list of everything I had read over the course of 2018. A number of the items on that list are books that I’ve not really had the time to review or discuss on the site or the show, or that would be worth revisiting because they’re so good. So today I’m doing a brief(ish) roundup of some of the magical media I liked best in the past year, particularly the stuff that relates to folk magic, folklore, and witchcraft (although I’m sure I’ll stray a bit here and there from the beaten path, but I have a feeling if I’m interested in something at least a few of you are, too). The year 2018 was a good one for magic and enchantment in the public eye (and in the right nooks and crannies of our own little folksy corner of the internet), so there’s a lot to recommend. I hope this is useful to some of you!
When it comes to books, there were tons to choose from that made my folklorist/magical whiskers twitch. I’m going to divide this list into two categories: books about witchcraft and magic, and books about folklore that are probably of interest to people who read this site.
- The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to The Present, by Ronald L. Hutton – I reviewed this book professionally for the journal Western Folklore, and while I do have a few issues with it (Hutton sometimes pulls from anthropology in ways that don’t make sense or paints with some overly broad brushstrokes), for the most part I find this book gives a very comprehensive overview of the concept of “witchcraft” as it developed from Ancient Rome into contemporary times. The focus here is on Europe (and even more so on the British Isles), but it still offers insights into everything from shamanic practices to the cunning folk and the role that secularization played in fanning the flames of witch trials, so to speak. A solid, if sometimes dense, read.
- Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch, by Richard Orth – There seem to be more and more books looking seriously at the Pennsylvania German cultural region, and some of them are seeing that the practice of magic (even if it isn’t called that explicitly) forms a piece of the greater patchwork of that culture. Orth, the director of the American Folklife Instituted, has written a book that takes a scholarly-but-not-dismissive look at the witchcraft and magic of the PA-Dutch and covers areas of interest ranging from the physical objects of deitsch magic to key figures like Mountain Mary. If you like learning about powwow and braucherei, this is absolutely a read for you.
- Sigil Witchery, by Laura Tempest Zakroff – Zakroff has been on our show before and we’ve talked about her fresh and original take on both cauldrons and sigils, but I haven’t had time to do a full review on her book about sigil magic. My completely biased two cents? Buy it. Immediately. It was absolutely perfect for getting me thinking about magical symbols in new and creative ways, while still seeing them rooted to a variety of cultures that use them (without directly stealing anything from those cultures). Her latest release, Weave the Liminal, is also worth reading, although it’s a 2019 book so I will hope to do a full review later on.
- Six Ways, by Aidan Wachter – I did manage to review this one on our site when it came out, so I reiterate here that this is a book worth reading, worth writing in, worth dragging with you outside under a tree, worth stuffing into your backpack or briefcase, and worth giving to others when you’re done. It’s a remarkably unique and resourceful approach to practical witchcraft rooted in Wachter’s own experiences, but written in a way to make the work he’s doing accessible for anyone. It will likely get you doing magic in different ways and discovering enchantment in things you hadn’t noticed before, and that’s a mighty accomplishment.
- Besom, Stang, and Sword, by Chris Orapello and Tara-Love Maguire – More guests from our show doing great things! I made a point in my review of Besom, Stang, and Sword that it provides an eerie complementary text to Wachter’s Six Ways, because both are about a rooted practice building on an animistic understanding of the world. Orapello and Maguire open up their own traditional witchcraft practices here, and show the deep connections they have built up in their own spaces, while offering a reader so many (SO MANY!) good rituals and tools to do the same in their spaces. We’ll likely have them on to talk about this more, but it’s 100% worth reading.
- Witches, Sluts, and Feminists, by Kristen Sollee – This one is less directly about practical witchcraft and much more about the role of witches in society. I don’t love Sollee’s somewhat fast-and-loose recounting of witchcraft history, but she does try to keep the roots of her discussion grounded in fact rather than sensationalism. She also makes some truly excellent points about the deep connections between women’s bodies, sexual identity, and the use of the labels “witch” and “slut” over time to exercise control over them. Her point? That women can and do take power from those labels eventually, and that witchcraft can be something that helps women exercise their personal authority in ways that rational, hierarchical systems can’t. It’s a lot of social theory rather than witchcraft-proper, but if you are into that line of thought you might find value in this one.
Folklore and Witchcraft-Adjacent Books
- Border Lore, by David Bowles – We had Bowles on the show this year, and there are actually lots of books he’s written that I could recommend. I start with this one because Border Lore hits the right notes of folklore, magic, witchcraft, and storytelling for me. It talks about La Llorona and lechuzas, spooky roadside encounters and dances with the devil, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to read.
- Every Tongue Got to Confess, by Zora Neale Hurston – This is a new-to-me collection that actually came out ten years ago, but it contains an immense amount of Hurston’s research and folklore work from her time in the Gulf States working for the WPA. She covers a lot of material, including plenty of stories about folk devils and witchcraft that would be worth reading for anyone who likes the things we do. As an added bonus, if you happen to be an Audible member, you can get this as an audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis (which is an AMAZING combination).
- The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar – If you know much about African American studies or folk and fairy tale studies, then the names of this book’s editors should have you rushing to buy it already. Gates, famous for his work on African American history (and his role hosting the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots) and Tatar, Harvard’s resident fairy tale expert, have compiled a tremendous collection of African American lore and added insightful notes on the stories. The magical lore isn’t extensive, but it’s there in the stories, and provides a strong sense of the cosmology that has been so influential on the American psyche for hundreds of years. An excellent addition to your library.
- The Old Gods Waken, by Manly Wade Wellman – This was a recommendation from a listener and I was very impressed by it. In it, an Appalachian bard and a Native American shaman have to save a folklorist and her love interest from a family of New World druids (why do folklorists always get into these kinds of scrapes?). There are lots of folk magical tidbits mixed in, and the story (it’s fiction, by the way) is generally fast-moving and compelling, with a real flavor of Appalachian language in the text.
- Who by Water, by Victoria Raschke – This is the first in a trilogy of books set in Slovenia and in it an expat named Jo Wiley suddenly discovers a dormant power to speak with the dead, including her mother and her murdered lover. This leads her on a quest through Slovenian myth and mystery as she evades people–and forces–that fear or want to use her power. It’s engaging and fun, and exposes you to an area of the world you might not know much about in a way that feels exciting. Definitely worth it!
Movies, TV, and Other Media
This section is a bit of a catch-all, in that the recommendations here are more connected to things I’ve watched and enjoyed, although there’s also at least one book in this category, too (and some of the TV shows have double-lives in print and screen, but that will make more sense in a moment). I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on some of these, but I do think all of these are worth watching and forming your own opinion about.
- Hilda (Netflix Original Series) – My family and I fell in love with this series and are hungry for more when it comes back later this year. It’s about an impetuous girl in Scandinavia who must move to the city of Trollberg with her mom after they lose their house in the distant countryside. Hilda (the girl) has always been good at relating to the strange creatures around her, including giants, trolls, woffs (flying dog-like puffballs), and elves (who love paperwork more than anything). There is so much magic in this series, and it’s beautiful. We also have devoured the graphic novels by Luke Pearson the series was based upon, and found that they often have even more wonderful lore in them. This is one of my highest recommendations.
- We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, by Michael D. Ingham – Okay, this is also a book, so why is it here in media? Mostly because it is a book about film and television that any fan of the uncanny, bizarre, magical world that haunts us would like to watch. Ingham’s book is wonderful not just in the way it offers a reader a chance to discover so many unknown gems of cinema and TV that fit the “folk horror” category, but in the way the author makes no bones about the stuff that doesn’t work, is generally terrible, or exploits people in some way. At the same time, his recommendations are rooted in a deep appreciation of the genre and a love for the rural and urban weirdness that fascinates so many of us. What is folk horror, by the way? It’s a genre that deals with strange mysteries and hidden pagan pasts intruding on our modern (and often ill-equipped) world. If you like films like The Wicker Man or Pan’s Labyrinth, you will probably get some good new things to add to your watch list out of this book.
- The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix Original Series) – Really, this is probably the most controversial inclusion here. If I’m honest, it took me about seven episodes to enjoy this series, and even then I’m not sure I really love it in the way some people do. It’s problematic and messy at times in the way that a number of teen dramas can be, and it really, really digs into the trope of the Satanic witch in ways that will put some people off. The cosmology behind it, however, makes sense if you think of this as a show that says “What if the Puritans were right and Satanic witches were around all along? How would their society have evolved alongside (or under) our own?” It’s not a perfect show, and frankly I got a lot more pleasure out of reading the comics upon which this new Sabrina reboot is based, but I don’t judge it as harshly because it is still baby-stepping its way forward and taking risks while it does so. After all, if I judged Buffy by its first season alone, I don’t think I’d ever have thought twice about it. I want to give this series more of a chance and hope it finds its feet, because there really is some good stuff in here, so I’m including it here with a tentative recommendation (and a huge grain of salt with which to take many of its more off-putting elements).
- Hereditary (Film, A24 Studios) – This one is likely to be a bit controversial as well. You will either love or hate this film, and either way I completely understand why. The story follows the strangely cursed lives of the Graham family, including artist mother Annie (Toni Collette) and doting-but-often-clueless father Steve (Gabriel Byrne). When their daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) begins to have eerie visits from Annie’s dead mother, things go from bad to worse, and the family soon finds itself in the clutches of a generational curse brought about by familial witchcraft associations. It can get really gruesome at times (and I mean stomach-turningly so), but the effect of impending dread and the way magic is presented here both worked for me. Things are seldom completely flashy, but rather almost grind forward in a relentless advance, and that makes the ending (as strangely mysterious and confusing as it can be) feel like a breath of relief. One that makes you almost feel guilty for taking it.
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Film, Kinoskopik) – Based on a folktale with iterations found around the world, this Basque film tells the story of a blacksmith whose deal with the devil (in actuality not the Devil, but a devil) leads to a twisted road of consequences, horror, and bloodshed. The folk roots of this story are done beautifully, and it’s gorgeous to watch. It is in the Basque language, but there are English subtitles as well. It’s available on Netflix and I definitely enjoyed watching it.
Whew! That’s seriously a LOT of magic to pack into one year, right? And I’ve actually only just scratched the surface! There are tons of things I’m missing here (including the Charmed reboot, which I’ve watched a bit of and mostly enjoyed so far, as well as the Hulu original show Light as a Feather, which I liked a bit less). I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing a lot of magical media coming out this year, too, and I’m hoping to keep on top of it and share recommendations as much as I can.
What about you? What enchantments did you brush up against or bump into (or run full tilt towards) in 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019? Let us know by email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are our top public spots), or in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
Our final story comes from Chinese folklore, and tells the tale of a fisherman who generously shared his wine with a ghost and found out just what a good friend the dead can be.
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Producers for this show: Heather, WisdomQueen, Regina, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Little Wren, Khristopher, Tanner, Achija of Spellbound Bookbinding, Johnathan at the ModernSouthernPolytheist, Catherine, Carole, Debra, Montine, Cynara at The Auburn Skye, Moma Sarah at ConjuredCardea, Jody, Josette, Amy, Victoria, Sherry, Donald, Jenni Love of Broom Book & Candle, & AthenaBeth. (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!
We sourced this version of the story from Favorite Folktales from Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen, and it can also be found in collections like Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, edited by Moss Roberts.
Promos & Music
Incidental music is by Anthony Salvo, Intersonic Subformation, Viviana Guzman, Dr Sounds, and Julian Blackmore, all licensed from Magnatune.com.