Show Notes - Episode 91
You know what's funny? Turns out Jesus really isn't the reason for the season. In fact, Jesus is kind of a latecomer to the season. In fact, loads of cultures don't give a rat's ass about Jesus when it comes to their Christmas celebrations. In most parts of the world, Christmas is either wildly pagan or blissfully secular with odd, eerie, and sometimes downright scary and fucked up traditions.
...and this week, we're going to have a look at some of those traditions and have a few moments of laughter, shock, cringe, and general WTF as we take a look at how people actually celebrate Christmas or the Christmas season around the world. But before we get into any of that... Josh Duggar: the dog who had his day and proof positive that Christian bigotry comes in a variety of denominations in this edition of Christians behaving badly I'm calling The pedo, the pastor, and the trans-phobic pinheads. Shelle, it's all yours...
In 'it couldn't happen to a greater asshole' news:
Former reality TV star Josh Duggar was convicted Thursday of downloading and possessing child sex abuse images on his work computer.
A federal jury in Fayetteville, Arkansas, found the 33-year-old Duggar guilty on one count each of receiving and possessing child pornography. He faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each count when he’s sentenced.
He pleaded not guilty in April to charges of receiving and possessing child pornography. Federal prosecutors contended that Duggar downloaded a Linux partition on the laptop to circumvent computer software that monitors internet use.
His activity was found in connection with an undercover investigation involving a file-sharing program, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. Investigators geolocated the computer to Duggar's car lot and then matched the timing of the image downloads to times Duggar was at the lot.
This includes times when Duggar was the "only paid employee on the lot," the prosecutor's office said in a Thursday press release.
Evidence presented to the court included logs of Duggar's internet use, which included downloading the images, sending personal messages, and saving pictures. Also a family friend testified that Duggar had confessed to her about his previous molestation activity. Although they tried to keep this person from testifying citing pastoral privilege, the point was made that women could not hold pastoral positions at their church. The judge allowed the testimony.
He will be in custody until his sentencing hearing in 4 months.
And this story here is...half positive and half negative. Pastor Craig Duke, of the Newburgh United Methodist Church, wanted to show his daughter, who had recently come out as pansexual, and other members of the LGBTQ community that he wanted to be a true ally to them and was working to make that happen. So when he got an invitation from the local Pride committee, he thought it would be a good idea to walk in someone else's shoes. Namely, a drag queen's shoes.
The HBO reality show “We're Here” follows three drag queens as they travel to small towns around america, giving drag queen makeovers to locals. Pastor Duke accepted and the show was broadcast just a few days ago.
He makes it clear that he felt it was an entirely positive experience, saying, “It was an incredibly wonderful, refreshing, deepening, powerful spiritual experience. I was surrounded and immersed in a culture that I’ve never been immersed in, and one of the things in ministry, if you want to involve people different than yourself in your ministry, you have to go to where people different than you are. The invitation to be part of the show allowed me that. “ He knew there were LGBTQ people in his congregation and he wanted to be “empathetic, not just sympathetic” to their lives and struggles.
Of course, the only people who had a problem with it were people in charge of the Newburgh United Methodist Church. They “relieved him of pastoral duties”, saying he should be out no later than February 28th. And not to come back.
Uh, doesn't that mean he was fired? There's nothing about it on the church website. It's like they hope no one notices.
Nice to know that God's love is conditional and based on the requirement that you hate all the same people as he does.
Promo next week: “We Three Kings of Orient Aren't – Everything Wrong With the Nativity Story”
So weird and wild Christmas traditions it is and, yeah, there are some WTF moments ahead, folks. Is it just me or are there more dark, scary traditions tied to Christmas than there are to Halloween? In a lot of places Christmas is just the Halloween after Halloween. Let's talk first about the one that pretty much everyone knows... Krampus!
Originated in central Europe
His name comes from the German word Krampen, which means “claw.”
a half-goat, half-demon monster
punishes naughty children at Christmastime
He is a companion of St. Nichola
The legend is believed to have originated in Germany
Krampus has also been identified as the Son of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld
Krampus became associated with Christmas when Christianty began gaining a foothold in western Europe
The Catholic church tried, and failed, to ban him.
Tradition tells of Krampus and St. Nicholas arriving on December 5, not Christmas, but on Krampusnacht, which translates to “Krampus Night” with St. Nick rewarding good children with presents and punishing naughty children by, according to most traditions, beating them with sticks or switches. Some ore extreme versions of the myth have Krampus eating them or literally carrying them to Hell in a basket.
On December 6, aka St. Nicholas Day, children awaken either to a bunch of fun gifts or a bunch of welts.
Festivities involving Krampus:
The Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”) Alcohol typically plays heavily into this one. People dress up as Krampus and parade, usually loudly and obnoxiously, through streets, scaring and sometimes chasing spectators and taking things a bit far at times. Things can get dicey at Krampuslauf, kids.
There's been an upsurge of interest in Krampus-related activities since the late 20th century in Austria and Germany. He is part of their cultural heritage so things like Krampus runs are encouraged and do, in fact, range in tone from out and out debauchery to just a fun night out with more family-based themes.
There have also been a few recent horror movies revolving around Krampus, none of them good. Don't think you're going to get anything out of them about the actual legend. It's all schlock horror with basically nothing to do with the “real” Krampus outside the fact that they typically take place on or near Christmas. But the Krampus in the movies could be any baddie.
Some think that the expanding popularity of Krampus is a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas. I personally think the Internet has a lot to do with it and a lot of the popularity of Krampus has more to do with people having darker senses of humor than they want to admit.
But he isn't the only one out there waiting until the most wonderful time of the year to frighten children. Oh no...
The Belsnickel is described as being loud and cantankerous, dressed in furs and carrying a bundle of birch switches. He visits children in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and asks them whether they’ve been naughty or nice all year. Sounds pretty familiar...
“He’s a creature of folklore from the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany, brought to America by German immigrants, who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. ['Tis an Amish thing – get it thou wouldst not] The figure has persisted in the Pennsylvania Dutch regions of the U.S. and spread a bit into the wider culture, particularly with organizations celebrating the rural lifestyle at Christmastime.”
I went to school 45 minutes out of Amish country – why am I only learning about this now???
Knecht Ruprecht is Saint Nicholas' most familiar attendant in Germany. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom Saint Nicholas raises from childhood.
Ruprecht wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood. Sometimes he walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. He can be seen carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and on occasion wears little bells on his clothes. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.
According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, he hits the children with his bag of ashes.
His tradition can be traced to the French/German border region of Alsace Lorraine
Legend tells how Trap began as a wealthy man- but greedy and evil to boot. He was so rotten that he was excommunicated by the Catholic church and sold his soul to Satan. Now beyond redemption, Trapp was exiled to the forests. But still, his evil was felt. Disguising himself as a scarecrow by stuffing straw into his clothing, he began to prey on children.
One day, or so the legend says, Hans Trapp was about to eat a small boy he had captured when God, fed up of his evil-doing, killed him with a bolt of lightning. However, this was not the end of Hans Trapp. He continued to roam the earth, dressed as a scarecrow.
Hans Trapp is one of many concocted incarnations of what we would call “Santa's helpers.” He is trying to earn his redemption like when celebrities get sentenced to doing anti-drug rallies in high schools and shit. St Nicholas awards presents to the good children while Hans Trapp does what he can to persuade naughty children to mend their mischievous ways so they won't be like him.
Le Pere Fouettard
Le Pere Fouettard is a French/Belgium Christmas bogeyman with one foot in history and the other in the pagan past. Like Krampus and the Perchen, he is linked to the purifying/ punishing aspect of whipping-hence his name “Father Whipper.” Dressed in dark robes, with a sooty face and unkempt hair and a beard, children can hear him coming from the sound of the slapping of his whip. Le Pere does not work alone; he also follows St Nicholas from house to house, acting as his punisher, dispensing coal and beatings to the naughty. His original pagan context is lost, so instead, he is given shape by various more historical legends and events.
The most popular story of Le Pere Fouettard dates from around 1150. In this tale, La Pere was either an innkeeper or butcher with particularly evil habits. One day, he and his wife captured three boys on their way to a religious boarding school. They robbed the boys of their money and then disposed of them most gruesomely, slitting their throats, cutting them up- and stewing them.
St Nicholas heard of the crime and resurrected the children. On seeing this miracle, the evil innkeeper repented. He either volunteered to help St Nicholas as penance- or else was forced by the saint to assist him every Christmas, punishing the bad while the Saint rewarded the good.
Other, more historically verifiable events explain La Peres’ dirty face. In 1552, the northeastern French city of Metz was under siege by the forces of Charles V, the Spanish King, and Holy Roman emperor. The anger of the citizens led them to make a likeness of the Emperor and drag it through the city streets and burn it. At the same time, the tanners of Metz had created a grotesque character who punishes children. The two separate effigies somehow married themselves together in the popular mind and became incorporated into the role of Le Pere Fouettard.
Ukraine Spiders for luck
The Ukrainians take a different approach to Christmas decorations, swapping fairy lights for spider webs. The legend of the Christmas spider explains that a poor widow and her kids cultivated a Christmas tree from a pine cone but couldn’t afford any decorations… then, on Christmas morning, they woke up to see their tree blanketed in cobwebs, which sunlight then transformed into gold and silver. Nowadays, trees across Ukraine are decorated with little spider ornaments called ‘pavuchky’ and fake spider webs, which is said to be the origin of the sparkly tinsel that shimmers at Christmastime all around the world.
In Ukraine, Spiders are considered to bring good luck for the coming year.
Frau Perchta - Frau Perchta is a witch who comes to see who has been naughty or nice. She slits the bellies of bad children and stuffs their corpses with straw. It’s sort of like Santa bringing coal, but with disembowelment instead.
The Kallikantzari - The Kallikantzari are goblins who spend most of the year underground, trying to bring about the apocalypse. During Advent they come out on to human territory to cause mischief and evil. They are sometimes described as black furry creatures with tusks and horns. They are usually male, and grotesquely well endowed.
Despite the classic long, hooked nose, warty skin, and soot-covered appearance, La Befana is Italy’s much-beloved witch who flies on her broom on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5th), slipping candy into the stockings of good children and leaving coal or a stick to naughty ones.
According to the legend, when the Wise Men were on their journey to find baby Jesus, they invited this industrious old woman to join them. She declined because she felt she had too much housecleaning to do, yet shortly regretted her decision and set off to find them, visiting children along the way. Like St. Nicholas, it’s common to leave treats out for La Befana, although she prefers cookies and a small glass of wine.
But wait... there's MORE. So, so, so much more....
These next couple are from Icelandic tradition:
The Yule Lads - Icelandic kids don’t just get one Santa Claus, they get 13 mischievous trolls roaming the country in the fortnight before Christmas. Like Snow White’s seven dwarves, each of the 13 ‘jólasveinar’ (Yule Lads) has his own personality – including Doorway-Sniffer, Spoon-Licker, Sausage-Swiper, Candle-Stealer, Curd-Gobbler, and the ominously named Window-Peeper. Each takes turns visiting children who leave shoes in their bedroom window, dropping off pressies for the good kids and rotting potatoes for the bad ones. ….sounds lovely! Each one comes on each night during the 13 days before Christmas to visit.
The Yule Cat
And of course, since it's a cat, I had to include it: The Yule Cat. He's a huge and vicious cat roaming the countryside; and when he comes across someone without new clothes at Christmastime, he eats them.
According to Wikipedia: Though referred to as an ancient tradition, written accounts of the Yule Cat have only been located as recently as the 19th century. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and thus would be preyed upon by the monstrous cat. The cat has alternatively been described as merely eating away the food of ones without new clothes during Christmas feasts.
This tradition is from Wales, and the earliest known mention is from the 18th century. The name Mari Lwyd means Gray Mare, and is part of a wassailing tradition from Christmas to 12th Night. The Mari Lwyd consists of horse's skull on a stick, with colorful ribbons for mane and glass eyes, and a sheet for the performer to hide under as they go from house to house. She is accompanied by several other characters, such as a leader, and Punch and Judy. Traditionally, these are all played by men.
“The men would carry the Mari Lwyd to local houses, where they would request entry through the medium of song. The householders would be expected to deny them entry, again through song, and the two sides would continue their responses to one another in this manner. If the householders eventually relented, then the team would be permitted entry and given food and drink.” This exchange was often punctuated by rude rhymes, and silly excuses for why Mari Lwyd could not come inside. This exchange was known as pwnco. It would often start with a request by Mari Lwyd to come into the house but the replies would often be insulting. Eventually the household would relent and invite Mari Lwyd inside for food and drink. The “horse' would run around and generally make a ruckus, and when alcoholic beverages were provided, you can imagine what all these guys were like by the end of the night!
The Caganer and Caga Tio
And now, two traditions from the region of Catalan in Spain: first, the Caganer, a Christmas statue that is often included in Nativity scenes. He's usually far from Mary and Joseph and the manger, isolated in a quiet corner. He's depicted as a peasant wearing the traditional red cap...and he's also in the process of pooping. The name 'el Caganer' literally means “the pooper.” The caganer is a particular and highly popular feature of modern Catalan nativity scenes, which often depicts the entire town of bethlehem. It is believed to have entered the nativity scene by the late 17th or early 18th century, during the Baroque period. These days, often the Caganer is in the likeness of a celebrity or politician.
Why the pooper? The Caganer, by creating faeces, is fertilizing the Earth. According to the ethnographer Joan Amades, it was a "customary figure in nativity scenes [pessebres] in the 19th century, because people believed that this deposit [symbolically] fertilized the ground of the nativity scenes, which became fertile and ensured the nativity scene for the following year, and with it, the health of body and peace of mind required to make the nativity scene, with the joy and happiness brought by Christmas near the hearth. Placing this figurine in the nativity scene brought good luck and joy and not doing so brought adversity."
The Caga Tio is similarly scatological. This is a log that has had a face drawn on, and has a blanket over what would be it's “backside”. The children will “feed' it for several weeks, and then the log is entreated to defecate on Christmas Eve and "magically" produces candy and presents for the children *(which will appear under the blanket) while the children hit the log with sticks if it doesn't give enough. When it is done, it will give a clove of garlic or sardines. And then it is thrown in the fire.
There's even a song that goes with the tradition.
Poop nougats (turrón),
Hazelnuts and mató cheese,
If you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
Black Peter (Zwarte Piet)
Originated in the Netherlands
One of the first depictions of St. Nick (Sinterklaas) having an actual servant... and he was black. Well, black face, which, in 2021 is actually far worse
“According to a long-standing theory first proposed by Karl Meisen, Zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe were originally presented as one or more enslaved demons forced to assist their captor. These chained and fire-scorched demons may have been redeveloped as black-skinned humans during the early 19th-century in the Netherlands in the likeness of Moors who work as servants for Saint Nicholas. Others believe Zwarte Piet to be a continuation of a custom in which people with blackface appeared in winter solstice rituals.” - Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet
...just because it's pagan doesn't make it ok.
Black Peter and Sinterklaas both had more menacing personae at their inception, both being benevolent to good-mannered children and antagonistic to ill-mannered ones. In fact, some traditions have Black Peter doing a lot of the same things that are associated with Krampus, particularly beating naughty children with reeds.
But the racist aspect of this can't be denied...
“In 1850, the Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht ("Saint Nicholas and his Servant" in English). It's widely considered the first time a servant character was included in a printed version of the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page who appears as a dark-skinned person wearing clothes associated with Moors.”
Translation: if Santa was going to have a servant, then it made sense that he would be black. So, not terrifying, gross, or humorous. Just plain racist.
The Netherlands is basically phasing him out...
There is a longstanding tradition of portraying Sinterklaas as having an entourage of white helpers in blacface known as his Zwarte Pieten (blak petes). They are pre-victorian era caricatures complete with over-accentuated lips and afros. For a long time this ha just been tolerated because it's tradition, but many are beginning to see that this is an image whose time is up.
There's a great article from Time magazine about this that I'm not going to delve into in depth but, suffice it to say that it showcases quite well the difference between how white people see certain things versus how black (and, really, any non-caucasian) sees them. The subtle way they sneak the racist thoughts in there... and it's not just an America thing. Fortunately, there is a movement in the Netherlands that seeks to, as the name identifies, “Kick Out Zwarte Piet.” The article is from 2019 but this is an ongoing movement: https://kozwartepiet.nl/
The final word
So, traditionally I add some kind of final thought to what we're talking about at the end just to sum things up and give you some kind of valuable takeaway. This week, I think that the message here is about the same as last week. Don't take things that have any kind of religious tie-in too seriously. Christmas as a celebration was a thing long before there was a Christ to tag onto it. It was just called different things. And the traditions that encompass this time of year are not now, nor have they ever really been about peace on earth and good will toward men. In fact, some of it steers directly into the realm of child abuse when you think about it.
I do find it interesting how many of these traditions have “better watch out” qualities about them – warnings to live upright lives and behave ourselves if we don't want to get thrashed with reeds, devoured by goat demons, or succumb to grandma's murderous tendencies over things like cookies. It's all marvelously over-the-top and actually meshes well with the “god loves you but if you don't accept Jesus he'll fry your face off” message of the “gospel of grace.”
It also impresses on me how people use specific times of year, particularly Halloween and Christmas as excuses to either celebrate or misbehave in various ways. When I think about the Krampus runs I also think about the debaucheries associated with Halloween and even in the states, things like St. Patrick's day and the excuses we come up with for amping up the revelry.
But the thing that really impressed upon me researching all this is just how little attention the christ child actually gets at this time of year around the world. In japan, Christmas is an excuse to snarf some KFC and I'm guessing that's most of what they know or understand about it. And where is Jesus in the sea of Santas carousing in the streets and tainting children's idyllic view of Santa Claus? The answer is simple: he is part of a specific culture that focuses on him at this time of year. Just like Krampus, the Belsnickel, Hans Trapp and all the rest. In America, we're bombarded by Jesus, Jesus, Jesus with a liberal smattering of traditions that have a lot more to do with pagan traditions tied to winter than they have to do with Chrstianity. Spend Christmas in other parts of the world and it's like “Jesus who?” which, to me, is all for the better.
And just so I can punch it at the end: broadening our horizons and learning about how other people view and approach things like Christmas makes us more well-rounded. It makes us smarter and has the ability to make us laugh, gasp, or cringe depending on the tradition. But most of all, it helps us see just how small a player Jesus really is in most cultures at this time of year. And the smaller he becomes in our experience of things, the easier it is to get and stay unbound.