Written by Luke Greensmith
Originally published on December 5th, 2020
It’s that most wonderful time of year again, with Krampusnacht!
You better have been good this year, or else on the 5th of December the demon of Christmas will be looking to track down people on the naughty list!
I won’t be tackling Krampus themselves again this year, you’ll need to go back to the first special in 2019 for the demon themself.
This year’s festive Krampusnacht special is going to be looking at more obscure Christmas traditions. There are plenty of unusual pagan remnants from the dead of winter, either cautionary tales to behave (or else a demon will tan your hide with a bunch of birch sticks at best), while sometimes just being a little bit of regional wonder. Stories and traditions aimed at helping people get through the coldest days, a celebration with family in the dark times. Human lives defying the end of things, something that I think is incredible. Annual messages of hope stretching back thousands of years.
The context is a little off in the modern world. Traditions that have gone global seem a little different in, say, Australia when Christmas becomes a midsummer beach party. But we still take time out each year to take some time to feast and spread cheer, something this year certainly needs!
Let’s go have a look at lesser known, sometimes nearly forgotten, regional folklore…
SECTION BREAK - Italy’s Christmas Witch
Italy has a somewhat different tradition not directly linked to what has endured as Christmas… They have a gift giving witch, who is abroad on the night of the 5th of January to give kids a mix of gifts or sweet treats. Befana has the typical witch depiction of being a broomstick riding hag, but she’s always smiling and covered in soot from entering houses through the chimney to give out her presents.
As with all pagan traditions that survived Christianity, a lot of the origins have been through the blender and could be all or none of the hints that got passed down. The 5th of January is the Night before the feast of Epiphany, a Christian tradition with a wide range of regional applications.
As a purely Christian figure, her stories seem to centre on the three wise men heading to the birth of Jesus. Stories of her tend to have assorted elements of being unable to give them directions, but being able to give them shelter, and refusing to follow to see the birth of Jesus only to regret that. In some stories she follows with gifts for the baby Jesus, who then gives her the gift of being a grandmother to all children able to visit them with gifts each year. In other, more tragic stories, she never managed to find Jesus and she is now doomed to give gifts to each child each year as every child has a part of that divinity within them. The speculation in line with the Christian tradition is that Belfana’s name comes from an Italian mispronunciation of the Greek for Epiphany.
From here, comes speculation on pre-Christian traditions which may give these stories a foundation.
Befana’s name may also come from the name of gifts given by the Goddess Strenia, which in turn ties into an Ancient Roman tradition of giving gifts in the new year. An old word for the gifts of Strenia being the “Bastrina”, which could be the root of the name Belfana.
I’ve even seen some mention of Befana stretching back to Neolithic traditions. A claim made in the Italian Anthropology book “Una casa senza porte”, or “House Without Doors”, that may also relate to some other surviving traditions using the image of Befana. In some places Befana dolls are burned, not out of some strange Christian witch roasting fervour (although never rule that out) but as a symbol of the old year being replaced.
Whichever particular witch story you prefer, I like this one. It may just be that as a Pratchett fan I’m a sucker for stories of good witches, but it’s nice to have another happy winter gift giver out there.
SECTION BREAK – Somewhat spooky tree decorations
Parts of Europe, especially as you head East, have a Christmas tradition that seems more appropriate for Halloween to the rest of the world.
Spiderweb and spider decorations.
This… Goes back a fair bit.
Decorated Trees are fully folded into the Christian tradition at this point, but this is a pre-Christian winter tradition. The only mention of bringing trees indoor within the bible is an express instruction NOT to do this because it’s pagan. So some traditional ideas surrounding these relics of older culture may be more in line with them.
One of these possible remnants seems to be finding a spider in your tree.
Rather than being a sign to burn that tree and start again, finding a spider in your festive tree is an omen of good luck. I guess at the very least it means your tree is less likely to be infested with other bugs.
In the Ukraine, Poland, Denmark, and Germany you can get beautiful cobweb ornaments for your trees. They really do look pretty cool, although I do like me some spider themed decorations since I’m so into Halloween, so I may be biased, but give Christmas Spider ornaments a Google. There’s some pretty ones out there! The aesthetic that’s being shot for is cobwebs with morning dew turned to frost on them, and that’s a pretty pretty natural occurrence.
One potential origin story I saw relates to tale of widow and her children, who one year got lucky as a pinecone took root outside their house. Her children were ecstatic that they would get to have a tree this year, but as the time grew near she had to break the news to her kids that they were too poor to afford any decorations for the tree. Still, she promised she would bring the tree indoors anyway to celebrate as best she could then turned into bed for the night. The spiders around her house had noticed this, and upon hearing the sobs of the children as they went to sleep decided to decorate the tree for the family. They woke up the next morning to find that spiders had worked together to make the most fantastic festive decorations for their bare tree, that as the morning light hit the frozen cobwebs they turned silver and gold in a fantastic display!
I’ve even seen some claims that this story is the origin of tinsel, but in countries where this story endures there are also the more specific cobweb and spider ornaments on sale each year.
I just hope that first family didn’t mind spiders. That could be a very awkward gift if anyone was an arachnophobe.
SECTION BREAK – Definitely don’t be naughty!
I think I mentioned Frau Perchta last year, and if I didn’t I really should of. She’s is something of a female version of Krampus, to the point were the two stories have blended across Europe and it’s common to see women in Frau Perchta costumes in Krampusnacht parades along with the more masculine demon of the holidays.
But there’s much more to this Christmas witch than just a girl alternative skin for Krampus. She’s certainly very different to the cheerful Belfana.
So, the good news for if you’ve been nice this year. Should you bump into Frau Perchta as she goes door to door for the twelve days of Christmas and you’ve not been naughty this year? You’ll find a silver coin in your shoe.
If you HAVE been naughty, though…
Frau Perchta treats the naughty like The Punisher from Marvel Comics treats a criminal, if not a little worse since Frank Castle will just put a bullet in your head.
The good Frau has a vicious temper.
Anyone on Santa’s naughty list she catches on her rounds will wish for coal, if only to try and beat themselves to death with it after Frau Perchta is done with you. She will slice open your stomach to pull out your guts before stuffing the empty midrift with straw and stones, stitching you back up for good measure in case you have any ideas about putting your sweetmeats back in.
Frau Perchta is a classic archetypal witch in appearance. Haggared looking and ugly, with a crooked nose to finish off the look, she has one unnaturally large foot. She also likes to brandish her knives out in the open, because who the hell is going to stop her? You should be kind and respectful in the holiday season anyways, but call this a bonus reason to be extra polite to old women around this time. As with all dual nature possible fae, mind your damn manners and spread some extra Christmas cheer as you go just in case you need a few more points to move over to the Nice list.
One of the brothers Grimm is on the record as speculating Frau Perchta has a root in the stories of the old goddess Frau Berchta, a white robed woman who was the goddess of spinning and weaving. This has a strong link with something else that can set off Frau Perchta’s murderous temper: If the good Frau on her rounds catches any women who have not finished their chores of spinning flax by the Twelve Night of Christmas, the 6th of January, she will fly into a rage. I’m not sure how killy she is if this sets her off, but best to have your chores in the bag before the twelve day of Christmas just in case. Old gods and goddesses are renowned for being a tad vengeful.
If you’re on the worried side about Frau Perchta, maybe you’re too busy to finish up your flax spinning over the new year, I have a fun decoration fact that may help. In the same way the Christmas Spiders may have been the origin of tinsel, I may have stumbled into a fun origin of baubles! Apparently they are exceptionally similar to Witch Orbs, a glass device you hang up to foil the evil eye and deter witches from entering your home.
Okay, that was just a neat little fact I wanted to slip in somewhere, probably don’t wave your baubles at Frau Perchta. You’ll probably just make her angrier. I recommend inviting her in for a hot festive drink to rack up your Nice points and stall her while you get on to any flax spinning you were DEFINITELY planning on finishing just before she came upon your house.
SECTION BREAK – A Poop Log is apparently something we’re about to talk about.
Okay, we have time for one more small story, and I found something I could not have expected less.
Who watches South Park? Mr Hanky, anyone?
Yeah, there may actually be a long standing tradition for Christmas Poop.
I don’t quite know how my life has come to this, but honestly? Not even surprised at this point.
On with the Poop Log!
Tió de Nadal, or the Christmas Log, is a tradition from parts of Spain. He’s quite a jolly looking little fellow from the pictures having a smiling face, a cute little red hat, and stood on stick legs looking up at you. Children are encouraged to care for Tió de Nadal feeding them small logs, making sure they have water to drink, and keeping them warm under a blanket overnight or if the weather has turned.
Then, on Christmas Eve, begins The Ritual.
The Christmas log is sung songs and beaten with a stick until they poop presents and sweet treats. Songs including such lyrics as:
"Poop log, Poop nougats, Hazelnuts and mato cheese,
If you don't poop well, I'll hit you with a stick, Poop log!"
Once the treats have all been pooped up, Tió de Nadal then goes on the fire for some extra warmth on Christmas Eve.
It wasn’t a Christmas tradition I expected to find while researching this Krampusnacht special, but it’s certainly different!
I hope this cheered up the long nights a little. We’re nearly through a rough year, and well on our way through the darkest nights of it.
And don’t forget to be good, or Krampus will stuff you in his sack. He doesn’t bring presents in that thing, he takes away the naughtiest children.
That’s all for this episode. There are definitely more interesting things to share come next Krampusnacht! I didn’t even get to The Yule Goat yet, and I may see if I can go a bit more global next year.
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Good luck dodging Krampus and Frau Perchta, have a brilliant Christmas full of good food and great cheer, and I’ll catch everyone on the next episode!
Goodbye for now.