Tonight is Krampus Night

Krampus
In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who during the Christmas season punishes children who have misbehaved.

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, you may be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back. The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. Young men in these parts will traditionally dress up as Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampusnacht spirit — just be prepared for some weird looks if you’re not in Europe.

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The magic water pump in Chicago’s Schiller Woods

There are more than 500 hand-operated water pumps throughout the 68,000 acres of the Cook County Forest Preserves encircling Chicago. Most are utterly ordinary. But there’s one pump in Schiller Woods — a forest preserve in suburban Schiller Park, just to the northwest of Chicago — that some consider very special indeed.

The Schiller Park pump, in fact, regularly attracts crowds of people filling gallon jugs and other odd containers on any given day. What draws them to this pump in particular? The water, they say, has special properties: it energizes you; it makes you younger; it clears up chronic illnesses. Some describe the water as holy; others say they just like the taste.

Forest Preserve officials, for their part, claim there’s nothing particularly special about the well. To be sure, the water comes straight from the ground, meaning it contains none of the chemical additives — fluoride, etc. — that are found in city water. Because the pump is so popular, it is tested more regularly than others in the Forest Preserve system. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, its water is “a little low in iron and somewhat low in other trace minerals” but otherwise not distinctive. Still, the Schiller pilgrims cannot be dissuaded from faithfully toting their bottles and buckets to and from the well to refill week after week.

Check out a short video about the pump put together by WBEZ’s Curious City, below:

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Before America had Uncle Sam, there was “Brother Jonathan”

We’re all readily familiar with that ubiquitous personification of the United States, Uncle Sam. What is largely forgotten today, however, is that he was hardly the first such national symbol. In fact, Uncle Sam had several predecessors — perhaps most notably the post-Revolutionary War-era character “Brother Jonathan.”

Brother Jonathan, an early emblem of the United States.

From Atlas Obscura:

He was ill-mannered and ill-spoken—a boor, a braggart, a ruffian, a bigot, a hick, and a trickster. His name was Brother Jonathan.

Today he is all but forgotten—eclipsed by his upstanding uncle, Sam. But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was the personification of the newly independent American people: clever, courageous, not all that sophisticated and proud of it. He was the everyman incarnate. It was the everyman who had led America to victory. And now America looked to the everyman to lead them out from the bloated shadow of Great Britain.

Brother Jonathan was a rustic New Englander who was depicted at various times on stage as a peddler, a seaman, and a trader, but always as a sly and cunning figure. He began to show up in political cartoons in newspapers and magazines during the early part of the 19th century as new and cheaper printing methods developed. It was at this point that American cartoonists transformed Brother Jonathan from a figure of derision into one of patriotic pride.

Scholars and historians disagree about the origins of Brother Jonathan:

The term appears to date to the English Civil War, when it was applied derisively to the Puritan roundheads. […] It is probably derived from the Biblical words spoken by David after the death of his friend Jonathan, “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:26).

A popular folk tale about the origin of the term holds that the character is derived from Jonathan Trumbull (1710–85), Governor of the State of Connecticut, which was the main source of supplies for the Northern and Middle Departments during the American Revolutionary War. It is said that George Washington uttered the words, “We must consult Brother Jonathan,” when asked how he could win the war. That origin is doubtful, however, as neither man made reference to the story during his lifetime and the first appearance of the story has been traced to the mid-19th century, long after their deaths.

It’s worth noting, of course, that even Brother Jonathan had predecessors: even earlier personifications of America include Columbia and Lady Liberty.

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Belsnickel, the crotchety fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer of German folklore

Belsnickel
Belsnickel might wear a long black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells.

Old St. Nick’s not the only traditional Christmas character who comes round every December to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. In fact, there’s a whole cast of such figures across European folklore. Some of them serve to supplement Santa Claus, while others supplant him; Belsnickel is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Originating in southwestern Germany along the Rhine (and preserved, among other places, in Pennsylvania Dutch communities in the United States), Belsnickel

is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on another older German myth, Knecht Ruprecht, a servant of Saint Nicholas, and a character from northern Germany.Unlike those figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure.

Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.

With Christmas nearly upon us, there’s still time to get out there and do some ‘Belsnickling’!

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Happy Krampus Day

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may or may not be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, then Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back! The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. According to Wikipedia, young men in these parts will traditionally “dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.” So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampus spirit! Just be prepared for some weird looks, if you’re not in Europe.

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Bakezōri, the wandering sandal-monster of Japanese folklore

A Bakezōri, or wandering sandal.

According to Japanese folklore, sandals that have been mistreated by their owners can turn into a Yōkai called a Bakezōri. Per Wikipedia, Yōkai are “a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore.” Japanese animism holds that “spirit-like entities called (among other things) mononoke […] reside in all things.” These spirits can be malevolent or merely mischievous; in some cases, they may bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Some inanimate objects — household tools, for example — can develop or acquire such a spirit over time, becoming Tsukumogami.

By and large, these spirit-imbued tools tend to be harmless, although they may play occasional pranks or band together to take revenge on those who treat them poorly. The Bakezōri, described as a wandering sandal with two arms, two legs, and one eye, belongs to this class of Yōkai.

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The strange Christmas custom of Tió de Nadal

Photograph of a typical contemporary Tió

Image via Wikipedia

There are many holiday traditions that might seem a bit unusual upon closer inspection, and Christmas has more than its fair share (see Krampus, for example). One of the most unique and bizarre Christmas customs comes from Catalonia, Spain: Tió de Nadal (the “Christmas log”), also known as the “Caga tió,” literally meaning “the pooping log.”

The Tió de Nadal, according to Wikipedia, is a popular character in Catalan mythology. Basically, it’s a small, hollow log, typically adorned with legs, a face, and a festive hat. Sounds cute!–but there’s more. Wikipedia goes on:

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day or, depending on the particular household, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió
partly into the fireplace and orders it to “poop” (the fire part of
this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many
modern homes do not have a fireplace). To make him “poop”, one beats him
with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are brought by the Three Wise Men. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons.
Depending on the part of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs.
When nothing is left to “poop”, it drops a salt herring, a head of
garlic, an onion or “urinates”. What comes out of the tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone present.

Catalans even sing carols to the Tió de Nadal. Here’s one such song (translation included):

caga tió,

caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!”

poop log,

poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
poop log!

giving log,

give us treats,
give us sweets!
if you don’t want to give,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
give it up!

 

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Austria reassures refugees that there’s no need to fear Krampus

Moving to a foreign land and experiencing a new culture can be trying under the best of circumstances, let alone following harried passage from war-torn regions. The new sights, sounds, and tastes can be overwhelming, the unfamiliar customs can be baffling, the different climate can be uncomfortable. I’m certain the Syrian refugees have confronted all of these things in Austria and elsewhere throughout Europe. But while each element of culture shock can (by definition) be cause for distress, one aspect of life in Austria that is likely to be particularly disturbing for uninitiated newcomers is… Krampus. For those unfamiliar, Krampus is “a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes children during the Christmas season who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts.” In Austria and other Alpine regions of Europe, early December often features “traditional parades in which young men dress as Krampus.”

Mindful of these festivities, “Officials in the village of Virgen worried about how new arrivals from the Middle East would react to the local tradition of meeting so-called ‘Christmas Devils’ who pretend to abduct kids.”

Fearing the spectacle would be misunderstood, community representatives last week visited the 22 migrants — including 12 children — who have been housed in the Alpine village since the end of October.

They were shown the frightening masks and given insight into the event’s history with the help of an Arabic translator. The verdict? The newcomers had “lots of fun,” according to social worker Nicole Kranebitter.

The migrants “will now know what to expect when St. Nicholas and the Krampus creatures knock on their door,” Kranebitter added.

She said the next event planned for the families who fled war-torn homelands will be traditional cookie baking.

What a great and thoughtful approach, and in such marked contrast to the xenophobia that has greeted migrants in so many other parts of the world.

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Why are there so many medieval paintings of people battling large snails?

I never knew that giant snails featured so prominently in medieval paintings, but now that I do, this is the first question on my mind. They do, it turns out.  According to Sarah J. Biggs of the British Library, “images of armed knights fighting snails are common” in 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts, “especially in marginalia.”  Check out a sampling below:

View post on imgur.com

One theory about the snails, Biggs goes on, is that they represent the Resurrection; others suggest they are a symbol of the Lombards, a group “vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour”;  still others have described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as “a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.”

As /r/AskHistorians puts it, in other words, there are “as many explanations as there are scholars”; fundamentally, we just really don’t know. Redditor /u/TheAlaskan relates another plausible account:

“I’m partial to the explanation of Medievalist Lisa Spangenberg, who suggests that the snail is ‘a reminder of the inevitability of death.’
To understand that reference, you have to refer to Psalm 58 (Wycliffe translation) . We’re looking here at verses 7-8:
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
Like the snail, even the best-armored knight will melt away.”

Fascinating and bizarre stuff.

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