Christmas is finally at hand and it is, without exaggeration, the best time of year! The music, the decorations, the movies, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas albums all solidified December as my favorite month on the calendar. There are, after-all, so many wonderful cultural memes that have become etched into our festive celebrations: the carols, the trees, the gingerbread, the Rankin-Bass specials—oh, there are simply too many to list! And lets not forget the more solemn components: midnight mass, hymns, and advent.
Such traditions are evidently important to us; every single year, youth leave cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve, confident jolly Ol’ Saint Nick will arrive, as he has since before memory, to celebrate the birth of Christ by rewarding children for their good behavior. In the weeks leading up to the big day, children write Santa letters, visit him at malls, and nag parents mercilessly for assurances that the big guy won’t fly over their house on the twenty-fourth. Even President Obama, obviously aware how important Santa’s flight is to American youth, has gone so far as to offer Santa additional protection, should it be necessary to ensure his Christmas flight goes off without a hitch.
And yet, it is easy to forget that the entire world does not share this very Americanized yuletide cheer. It’s so easy to assume that because we in North America celebrate Christmas in a certain way, so too must all the people of the world. This isn’t the case, however, as much of the globe acknowledges a very different Christmas than that of the big-box superstore.
Well, take Eastern and Central Europe, prime examples of similar, yet at the same time, strikingly different, Christmas customs. Here, among the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, seasonal celebrations stretch out for much of December, and it isn’t surprising for Santa to make a pre-Christmas trip. In America, December 6th may not be particularly noteworthy, but those who keep track of European tradition will recognize the Feast of Saint Nicholas. In many nations—Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, and others—that is a huge deal, equally important in youthful eyes as Christmas itself. It is on this night that the aforementioned holy man visits the homes of good children, leaving small gifts and candy in their shoes.
That may seem like a recipe for disaster (or for stinky candy, at least), but there is magic to the simplicity of the ritual, and even though I grew up in Jersey, I vividly remember leaving my parochial-school uniform shoes out as a child, overjoyed when Saint Nicholas left delicious gelt within!
Unfortunately, it seems very few within the United States are familiar with such lore. Why, in this season of Christmas cheer, have the traditions of the Old World been forgotten? Are they too simple, or too alien, for American consumption?
Lets examine a few more variances.
In the United States, poorly behaved children are familiar with the fact Santa punishes their indiscretions by leaving a lump of coal instead of presents; only kind boys and girls awaken to find wrapped gifts beneath their tree. While nobody would be enthused to find coal on Christmas morning, it isn’t without its practical uses, especially if one happens to have a coal burning stove or locomotive that needs fueling. European children face a much harsher punishment than their American counterparts: a lashing at the hands of Krampus, a demonic entity that roams the streets on Krampusnacht, the night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
Swinging chains and threatening to drag the misbehaved away from their homes, Krampus’ diabolic nature is the exact opposite of Nicholas’s saintliness. That may seem a little macabre for Christmastime, but Krampus has become something of a cult icon, gaining minor traction in the United States and providing Europeans an excuse to drink and party on Krampusnacht (I have a Krampus stocking—available at the Paranormal Bookstore in Asbury Park—hanging by my tree, so I can appeal to his ego just in case the evil entity decides to visit Long Branch). Its important to realize this isn’t fringe folklore, either; it is very much part of the mainstream in Europe. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself an Austrian-American, eluded to the horrors of Krampus during a 1988 Christmas special:
“When I was a little boy in Austria, we had, a few days before Santa Claus came, we had someone else come: the devil! The devil would come in with his chains and mean looking, and he would read off all the bad things we did. He would say, ‘you got bad grades, you didn’t go to school one day, you were bad to your mother!’ And he would grab me and want to take me away.”
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
Saint Nicholas (and Krampus) still visit homes around the world on December 6th, and though the United States has distanced itself from this practice, areas with large ethnic enclaves, particularly Germanic or Slavic people, still commemorate these events and welcome the Saint into their homes. Even here in New Jersey, bastion of American modernism, traces of the feast day’s magic can still be felt. For example, Saint Nicholas visited Allaire Village on December 4th, clad in his European bishop garb, to help keep these old traditions alive into the new millennium, and typically also makes an appearance at St. Stephen’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Toms River.
However, outside of such diaspora, the traditions seem to be dying. I recently inquired via Facebook whether anyone else within my circle of friends remembered or adhered to these traditions? Lo and behold, several shared similar memories. All were excited to find someone else who knew about Saint Nicholas and his affinity for leaving treats in the most seemingly illogical of places. Of course, one of these friends was a native of Germany, who spent his youth in that country. With one exception, the rest had direct connections to Slavic countries, namely the Czech Republic, in the form of first generation immigrant parents or grandparents. When the question was raised, only one of my co-workers was familiar with the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Not surprisingly, he learned of it from a childhood friend, a German.
So, what cultural Christmas memories are in your ancestry? Perhaps it is time to dust off the memory books and revive remembrance, or at least inform the newest generations of their existence. Christmas traditions provide a unique link to the past, our ancestors, and the countries to which we owe our lineage; maybe we shouldn’t discard of them just yet.
Please share your own Christmas traditions in the “comments” section!