A DARK FIGURE hides behind the grinning countenance of Ole’ Saint Nick. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men in blackface dressed as old women. Sometimes he is in rags and a long black beard, and sometimes he is covered in fur with the horns of a goat and a long red tongue. He is just one of the many murderers and child molesters that make up Santa Claus’ posse. Truth is, Jolly Santa’s “companions” are a hodgepodge assortment of rough-and-tumble characters; assorted fiends with sordid pasts and nightmarish agendas. The companions travel with St. Nicholas or his various equivalents (Father Christmas, Santa Claus), carrying with them a rod (sometimes a stick, a mace, switchblade, sythe, revolver, a magic top hat, rusty chains, a birch branch, bundle of switches or a whip, and in modern times often a broom) and a sack. They are sometimes dressed in black rags, bearing a black face and unruly black hair. In many contemporary portrayals the companions look like dark, sinister, or rustic versions of Nicholas himself, with a similar costume but with a darker color scheme.
The companion of the French St. Nicholas, Père Fouettard, is said to be the butcher of three children. St. Nicholas discovered the murder and resurrected the three children. He also shamed Père Fouettard, who, in repentance, became a servant of St. Nicholas. Fouettard travels with the saint and punishes naughty children by whipping them.
In Germanic folklore, Knecht Ruprecht, meaning Knight Rupert, accompanies St Nicholas when delivering gifts and represents the more frightening side of this custom. He is also known as Black Peter, so called from the soot in the chimneys he goes down. According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes. In some of the Ruprecht traditions the children would be summoned to the door to perform special tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa and Ruprecht that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly by Servant Ruprecht, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who performed really badly were put into Ruprecht’s sack and taken away, variously to Ruprecht’s home in the Black Forest, or to be tossed into a river, or to be dumped into the fiery pits of Hell. Over time, the image of St Nicholas has merged with Knecht Ruprecht to form “Ru Klaus” meaning Rough Nicholas, so named because of his rugged appearance; “Aschen Klaus”, meaning Ash Nicholas because of the bag of ashes he carries with him; and “Pelznickle”, meaning Furry Nicholas, referring to his fur-clad appearance.
One of the most notorious incarnations is Santa’s old pal, Krampus. To say that Krampus is a bad seed is would be an understatement. The word Krampus originates from the Old High German word for claw (Krampen). In the Alpine regions, Krampus is represented by an incubus-like creature. Traditionally, young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of December 5, and roam the streets in drunken revelry: dressing in pagan costumes and frightening children and women with rusty chains and bells.
It would seem that Krampus is an amalgamation of several pagan traditions and trickster archetypes leftover from the Pre-Christian Era of Germanic history like the Yule Goat. Yule was a winter solstice festival that was connected to the Wild Hunt and/or influenced by Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival. A description of Yule can be found Old Norse King’s Saga Heimskringla:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut [ sacrificial blood ], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat. Later, toasts were to be drunk. The first toast was to be drunk to Odin “for victory and power to the king”, the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr “for good harvests and for peace”, and thirdly a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk… [This continues until everyone is plastered – sounds like Christmas, right?]
In his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Rudolf Simek says that focus was not on the gods of the Vanir, but instead the god Odin, and he notes that one of Odin’s many names is Jólnir (Old Norse for “yule figure”). Simek says that Odin was associated with Yule, and that the tradition of the Wild Hunt undoubtedly contributed to the association of the two. According to Simek “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages.”
This is fascinating since the Norse Odin is directly related to the Roman Mercury / Hermes. For instance, the name of the day “Wednesday” comes from the Middle English Wednes dei, which is from Old English Wōdnesdæg, meaning the day of the English god Woden or Odin. When the Romans described the gods of Celtic and Germanic tribes, rather than considering them separate deities, the Romans interpreted them as local manifestations or aspects of their own gods, a cultural trait called the interpretatio Romana. Mercury in particular was reported as becoming extremely popular among the nations the Roman Empire conquered; Julius Caesar wrote of Mercury being the most popular god in Britain and Gaul, regarded as the inventor of all the arts. Romans associated Mercury with the Germanic god Wotan, by interpretatio Romana; 1st-century Roman writer Tacitus identifies the two as being the same, and describes him as the chief god of the Germanic peoples. Julius Caesar, in a section of his “Gallic Wars” describing the customs of the German tribes, wrote “The Germans most worship Mercury,” apparently identifying Wotan with Mercury. That is why the Romantic languages use the Latin dies Mercurii (“Mercury’s day”) for Wednesday while the Germanic languages kept their Norse equivalent!
To tie it all together: Krampus is related to the “Horned God” an archetype represents the personification of the life force energy in animals and the wilderness, fertility, sexual virility and the Hunt. Gods like Baphomet, Cernunnos, Pan, Faunus, and Innus are personified as being sex crazed or shown as having a large erect phallus. Fertility, fecundity and the symbolism of the phallus all denote a connection to the rites, rituals, and celebrations of Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. Pan is the alleged offspring of Hermes/Mercury and follows in his progenitor’s footsteps as both trickster and psychopomp (a guide for the souls of the dead into the Underworld). Pan is also equated with the Astrological sign Capricornus.
This is where it gets interesting.
Capricornus has one of the oldest mythological associations, having been consistently represented as a hybrid of a goat and a fish since the Middle Bronze Age, first attested in depictions on boundary stones, and explicitly recorded in the Babylonian star catalogs as “The Goat-Fish” before 1000 BC. The constellation was a symbol of Ea and in the Early Bronze Age marked the winter solstice.
Among the Greeks and Italians St. Nicholas is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “The Lord of the Sea”, often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. Capricornus is a union between St. Nick and Krampus. Half goat, half fish.
So what we have here is Santa Claus/St. Nick/Father Christmas as personification of Winter Solstice accompanied by his servant and messenger Krampus/Horned God/Hermes as the personification of Summer Solstice. Basically a resurrection myth. In a Christian sense we have the birth of the Christ Child as the celebrated rebirth of the Divine. A promise that man will be redeemed through a Savior but also a forewarning of the suffering/death that he will have to endure before redemption. Enlightenment that comes after a period of Darkness (Ignorance), i.e., “Out of Darkness, Cometh Light.” In a Pagan sense we have the Horned Fertility God acting as psychopomp and leading us into the Underworld with the expectation of a later resurgence in reproductive energy come Springtime. In an Astronomical sense we have Winter Solstice being the longest night of the year and the onslaught of deathly cold, but also the return of the Sun and the guarantee that the Summer will eventually save us from starvation.
And so the Holiday is really a celebration of the dualistic nature of reality. An agreement that with the good comes the bad and vice-verse. An alchemical union of opposites. Christmas solved!