The Goat Who Stole Christmas

01 13 nuuttipukki 1Christmas seems like ages ago now doesn’t it? If you celebrated all twelve days of it, then it ended at Epiphany last week. People in some parts of Sweden and Finland are still going though. And who can blame them? Their dark winter nights are much longer than ours, so they deserve an extra week.

Today is Saint Knut’s Day, the twentieth and last day of Yule. The day is named for Canute Lavard, a prince of Denmark who was murdered in 1131. Oddly, the festival is not part of Danish culture at all, so there’s clearly something else going on here. Over the last month or so I’ve become rather interested in unusual Christmas visitors, and in Finland, on January 13th, you can expect a visit from the Nuuttipukki. It sounds as though it might have something to do with a person called Knut, but it is often translated as New Year Goat. The ‘pukki’ part of the word may be derived from the word ‘buck’, which can mean a male goat, or the old Norse ‘puki’ a devil. The Nuuttipukit (plural), although they might now be children taking part in a tradition that is somewhat like trick-or-treating, were once a group of masked men from a neighbouring village dressed in fur coats worn inside out. They wore masks of animal skin or bark and probably had horns as well. Rather than sweets, what they would expect from you was anything you had left over from the festive season, particularly alcohol. They were there to take your Christmas away. So what you have in the Nuuttipukit is a gang of marauding and unidentifiable men, in scary masks, who force their way into your house, and drink all your beer. Awful.

01 13 nuuttipukki 2Clearly this has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christian festival and is probably related to something much older. The mid winter celebrations are a time for gathering your family together and this could also include family members no longer with us. At one time, dead relatives would be expected to join the feast too, in spirit at least. It’s good to see family, but no one wants a guest who outstays their welcome. You wouldn’t want a spirit hanging round all year, that would be a nuisance and they would be likely to turn bad. The Nuuttipukki comes into your house and makes a big fuss to scare the spirits away. He wears a mask so that he won’t be recognised by any spirits who might decide to go and bother him instead.

In Sweden Saint Knut’s Day is associated with a tradition called ‘Julgransplundring’, Christmas tree plundering, which has been around since at least the seventeenth century. It is the day that you take down your tree and eat all the nuts, sweets and fruit that you used to decorate it and open all the crackers. The wikipedia entry for Saint Knut’s Day suggests that the Swedes ate the candy and the candles from their tree. Either it is a poorly constructed sentence or times were hard in seventeenth century Sweden. It is also a day for smashing your beautifully constructed gingerbread house and eating it. In the last century, once you had plundered your tree, the thing to do was tip it out of the window. This is now very much frowned upon. The trees have designated dumping areas and are either recycled for heating or saved for a big bonfire on Walpurgis Night at the end of April. Failure to dispose of your tree properly can lead to a fine or even up to a year in prison.

Perhaps this is the last of the Christmas celebrations, perhaps I’ll find another one lurking somewhere, I just don’t know yet. But it’s good to have a festival in which we can all celebrate having made it through the darkest part of the year. Nights that are longer and darker for some people than others, wherever they live. Hopefully we can, in the northern hemisphere at least, start looking forward to Spring soon.

Christmas Trolls

12 12 john bauer 1914In the UK, we only have one Santa Claus, who brings gifts to good children on December 25th, but in Iceland there are thirteen Christmas Trolls called the Yule Lads. Today, children in Iceland can expect a visit from the first of the Yule Lads. They will have left their shoes on the windowsill before going to bed. In the morning, if they were good yesterday, they will find sweets or a small gift. If they were bad, they will find a rotten potato.

A different Yule Lad will arrive in your town or village every day up until Christmas Eve. All thirteen of them will be around on Christmas day. Then, on Boxing day, they will begin to leave, one each day, in order of their arrival. The last leaves on January 6th, which is the traditional date of Epiphany. The motives of the Yule Lads have not always been good. Traditionally they were mischief-making trolls who were there to steal things from you, or perhaps for something even worse. But, in more recent times, they have become more benevolent and taken on some of the characteristics of Santa Claus. This does not stop children from being rather afraid of them though. Having lots of trolls hanging around your house for weeks at a time is never a good thing.

12 12 hungry troll theodor kittelsenOn December 12th, you can expect a visit from Stekkjarstaur, whose name is translated as Sheep Cote Clod. This is bad news if you keep sheep because he will hang around trying to steal the milk from their udders. Luckily, he has difficulty doing this because he had stiff legs and can’t bend down very well. On subsequent days, you can expect visits from trolls who will steal milk from the dairy, scrape out all your pans, lick all your spoons, steal your leftovers and take the pot of food that you have hidden under your bed for later. The seventh visitor will be Door Slammer, who obviously likes to loudly slam all your doors, especially at night. After that you will find that you have been visited by a troll who has eaten all your skyr, which is a bit like yoghurt and very precious indeed. Then you need to look out for the Sausage Swiper. He will sit in your rafters and try to steal the smoked sausages that you have hanging there. Worryingly, your tenth unwelcome guest will be the Window Peeper. Not only will he look through your windows looking for something to steal, he might want to watch you while you get undressed for bed too. Perhaps the weirdest of the thirteen though, appears on the eleventh night. He has an enormous nose and his name is Doorway Sniffer. Next comes Meat Hook. He has a pretty scary name, but what he does is sit in your chimney and reach down with his hook to steal the meat that you are smoking there. If you are lucky, his hook will not be long enough. The final visitor is Kertasníkir, Candle Stealer. As there was once a time when candles were the only available light in the dark winter, they were extremely important. For a child to lose their candle to Kertasníkir was a terrible thing. I don’t think trolls need light particularly, but those candles would have been made of tallow, which is animal fat. So he probably wants to eat them.

These thirteen visitors, their names and characteristics were fixed by a poem called ‘Jólasveinarnir’, which was published in 1932 by a poet called Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It is probably as well known in Iceland as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ is here. The trolls are the sons of the mythical giantess Grýla. She has an extremely long history and is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, which dates from the thirteenth century. As I explained back in September, Snorri’s Prose Edda is a companion book to the Poetic Edda, which is full of pre-christian beliefs, so she is doubtless much older than that. Grýla is, in legend, an extremely unpleasant figure. Like Santa, she is keeping an eye on children all year to see if they are good or not. But she doesn’t want to bring them a present. If children are bad or rude or lazy, she will come down from her mountain home, carry them off, stew them up and eat them. She only wants to eat bad children, because they taste the best.

In the thirteenth century she was described as having fifteen tails. Four hundred years later, she had a hundred bags tied to each tail, with each bag containing twenty naughty children for her pot. It seems there was no short supply of naughty children in the seventeenth century. In those days, both Grýla and her marauding sons were out for blood. Children were terrified and, by 1746, things had got so out of hand that a public decree was issued forbidding parents to scare their children with any more stories of Grýla and her sons. But in the nineteenth century, along with so much else, they received a bit of a Victorian style makeover and became less threatening.

12 12 scary cat theodor kittelsenGrýla and the Yule Lads do not live alone in the mountains. Grýla has a husband called Leppalúði, who seems to be basically just a bit lazy and stupid. He is her third husband, she ate the other two. They also have a cat. As you might expect, the cat is also not very nice. You may spot the Yule Cat lurking about on December 24th. It is looking for people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. If it finds someone, it will eat them. The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was extremely useful to farmers who were trying to get their workers to finish processing that year’s wool before Christmas Day.

As I said earlier, in 1932, the number of Yule Lads was fixed at thirteen, but originally there were many more of them to worry about. Grýla may have had up to eighty children. Of the ones that didn’t make the cut are Lampshadow, who would put out all your lights, Smoke Gulper, who would sit on your roof and gulp the smoke from the chimney and one called Litlipungur, whose name translates as ‘small balls’ and I’ve no idea what he did. There were also two sisters called Flotsokka and Flotnös who inexplicably liked to try to put a piece of fat on a half knitted sock or put a piece of fat up her nose. There was a troll called Flórsleikir, whose name means ‘dung channel licker’, but luckily, they mean the one in the cowshed. Most frightening of all though is Lungnaslettir which means ‘lung splatter’ he would carry his lungs in front of his chest and use them to beat children with. Sleep well everyone. x

The Tiny Oozing Bishop of Myra

12 06 saint nicholasToday is the feast day of Saint Nicholas who was made Bishop of Myra, then in Greece, now in Turkey, in 317 AD. Since then he’s had a few name changes and a bit of a makeover. From being ‘Saint Nikolaos’, he became, in the Netherlands, ‘Sinterklaas’ and from there ‘Santa Claus’.

The most famous story connected to his life is about a time he helped out a poor man with three daughters. The man didn’t have enough money to provide a dowry for them and they risked remaining unmarried. That might not sound so bad, but in those days it meant either you became a prostitute, or everyone just thought you were one. Nicholas didn’t want to embarrass the man by helping him publicly, so on each night before one of his daughters came of age, he sneaked up to the house at night and threw a purse of gold, or in some stories, a golden ball, through their open window. There is a version in which, on the last night, the father tried to catch him, but Nicholas climbed on the roof and threw his gift down the chimney instead. Here, it landed in a stocking that was drying by the fire. Saint Nicholas is, among other things, the patron saint of pawnbrokers and they took his three golden balls as their symbol.

12 06 knecht ruprechtIn another tale, there was a terrible famine in Myra. An evil butcher lured three children into his home, killed them, chopped them up and put their bodies in a barrel with some salt. He intended to sell their remains as ham. But luckily, Saint Nicholas found out about it and brought the children back to life and they were returned to their homes. This is how he gained his reputation as a protector of children. In France, the story goes that the evil butcher had to follow the saint in penance and he became Père Fouettard who doles out lumps of coal or beatings to children who have been naughty. In Germany, his servant is called Knecht Rupecht, a figure clad in brown or black who will check that children know how to say their prayers. If not, he will beat them or shake a bag of ashes at them. In Austria, of course, they have Krampus.

In the Netherlands, unlike our North Pole dwelling, sleigh-driving Father Christmas, Sinterklaas arrives in mid-November, on a steamboat, from Spain. He rides a grey horse over the roof tops and drops presents down the chimneys of good children, for them to find on his feast day. Some think Sinterklaas may have pre-Christian origins in the god Odin, who also rode through the sky on a grey horse. But Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs. Odin also gave us the gift of runes and had a couple of ravens who flew out into the world, sat on roofs listening at chimneys and returned to tell him what was going on.

12 06 sinterklaasThis brings us to Sinterklaas’s servant, or servants, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) who listens at chimneys to find out if children have been good or bad. The Zwarte Pieten sport colourful seventeenth century costumes, complete with lace collar and, controversially, blacked faces. They carry a sack with candy for the good children and a birch rod for the naughty ones. If you’ve been really bad, they might put you in the sack and take you back to Spain. I first heard about this story from David Sedaris in his story ‘Six to Eight Black Men‘.

In medieval times the feast of Saint Nicholas became, not just an occasion for giving gifts to children, but also an opportunity to help those less fortunate by, like the saint himself, leaving gifts of money for the poor. Nuns would place baskets containing food and clothes on the doorsteps of those in need. Saint Nicholas’s three golden balls turn up again too, in the form of oranges, a traditional Christmas gift which, as they would have come from Spain, might explain the belief in his Spanish origins. Or it might be because most of his remains were removed to Bari in 1087. While Bari is clearly in Southern Italy, it was once a part of Spain. Europe is a strange and ever-changing place. When the bones of Saint Nicholas were at Myra, they exuded a clear liquid which smelled like rosewater and is referred to as myrrh or mannah. When they were removed to Bari they fortunately continued to ooze the healing liquid. A flask of manna is still taken every year from the bones of the saint. In 2005, forensic scientists were able to measure the bones of Saint Nicholas and make a reconstruction. He was revealed to be around five feet high with a broken nose.

Grüß vom Krampus

12 05 visit from krampusDecember 5th is Krampusnacht. In parts of Europe, December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, otherwise known as Father Christmas. In Alpine countries, the night of December 5th is dedicated to his very scary companion, Krampus, whose name means ‘claw’. He is the anti-Santa. While Saint Nicholas rewards good children with presents, Krampus will visit the children who have been bad. He will either drown them, eat them or perhaps drag them off to Hell.

He’s a frightening figure, usually covered with black or brown hair. He has cloven hooves, a forked tongue and the horns of a goat. He often carries a a bundle of birch twigs to swat the children with and either a sack or a washtub strapped to his back to put naughty children in and carry them away. He also wears chains which sometimes have bells of differing sizes attached to them. The abduction of children part of the tradition may be a folk memory of a time when Moorish pirates arrived in Northern Europe, as far north as Iceland, stole children and sold them into slavery. Krampus shares his reputation as a punisher of naughty children with other companions of Saint Nicholas found elsewhere in Europe such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Père Fouettard in France.

12 05 the sorcererIt’s pretty obvious that he is some sort of demonic figure and his chains may represent the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. His origins are really unknown and he probably represents a Pagan god dating back to pre-Christian times who has been assimilated into the Christian Devil. Gods with horns were pretty important to our ancestors. Go back to 200BC – 300BC and you’ll find Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. Go back a little further, to around 500BC and you’ll find the first mentions of the Greek god Pan. There is even a cave painting found in France which shows a human figure with horns. It dates back to around 13,000BC. Horned figures have been with us for a very long time and they’re probably not going away any time soon.

The Austrian government tried to ban Krampus in 1934 and in the 1950s they distributed pamphlets titled ‘Krampus is an Evil Man’. Since the end of the twentieth century Krampus has been regaining popularity. Perhaps people are tired of our modern Christmas with its rampant consumerism and are looking for something a bit different. Something a bit more wild and dangerous.

12 05 gruss vom krampusIn some parts of Europe, people have exchanged Krampus greetings cards since the 1800s. Sometimes they picture him looming over bad children and sometimes the images have sexual overtones and show him running after young women. He often has one human foot and one cloven hoof. He might be celebrated with ‘Krampuslauf’ which is a run of celebrants dressed as Krampus which is often fuelled by alcohol. Don’t think that this is a ‘men only’ event though. Krampus has a female counterpart. 12 05 perchtaThere is an Alpine goddess called Perchta who might turn up sometime over the Christmas period to check we have all done enough weaving and spinning. If we have, she will leave a silver coin in our shoe. If we haven’t, she will slit open our bellies, rip out our guts and replace them with straw and pebbles. Which seems a bit harsh.

There are other European traditions which link Christmas celebrations with a horned animal. In Scandinavia, they have a ‘Yule Goat’ and Father Christmas is sometimes pictured riding a goat. The Yule Goat was a spirit that would 12 05 santa on a yule goatarrive in your home to check that you were making the correct preparations for the festival of Yule. It used to be a popular Christmas prank to fashion a crudely shaped goat and secretly place it somewhere in your friends house. Once they found it, they would have to pass it on in the same manner. If you’ve any doubt that Santa still has these associations, take a look at his reindeer. Also Father Christmas is Saint Nick, the devil is Old Nick. There’s got to be something there right? Have we all been good this year? I hope so.

12 05 yule goat