Saint Nicholas and the Christmas Demons
By Eadwynne of Runedun
(First Published in Tournaments Illuminated, Issue #97, Winter 1990, a publication of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.)
- 1Middle Ages
- 2The Ancient Origins of Yuletide “Demons”
- 3Yuletide Demons and Christmas
- 4St. Nicholas in the Middle Ages
- 5Afterward by the Author:
In the Middle Ages, as now, little was known about the historic life of St. Nicholas. We do know that he was Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor at the beginning of the 4th century. Immediately after his death (traditionally December 6th, 343 A.D.) stories of his holiness and legends concerning his many miracles were widely circulated. His tomb became a shrine. When Myra fell to the Saracens in 1087, his remains were stolen by Italian merchants and moved to Bari in Auplia, an Italian seaport. Because of this he was sometimes called Nicholas of Bari, although Venice also claims the honor. .
One well-known legend recounts Nicholas saving three maidens from being sold into prostitution by giving them secret gifts of gold, thus he became known as a “gift-bringer”. In another legend, he saved three children who had been carved up and boiled in a stew, thus becoming the patron of children. In many countries where Nicholas was a seasonal gift-bringer, he did not come alone, but with servants. These servants were not the kindly elves of modern American myth, but were servants wearing goats’ hair and horns, images which have their roots in pre-Christian times.
The Ancient Origins of Yuletide “Demons”
During the Roman Saturnalia, processions of animal-men bearing torches wound throughout the Roman towns and villages in remembrance of the reign of the god Saturn, a golden age supposedly populated by primal beasts, satyrs, fauns and wild men. “Saturnalia” was the Solstice Feast of Fire and Light which honored Saturn and his wife Ops, or Cybele, the goddess of agriculture, germination, and fertility. During Kalends, the January New-Year’s celebration, gifts were exchanged in hopes for a happy year. This custom was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages.
During the Zagmuk Festival which celebrated the Mesopotamian year, a criminal was chosen as a mock-king. He was ritually sacrificed to atone for the sins of his people during the previous year. This custom was reflected in the West by the ceremonial death of the Holly King (winter), and his replacement by the ivy King (spring). Because of the low ebb of the sun, the monsters of chaos and darkness, defeated prior to the shaping of the world, loosed their bonds and had to be subdued. The Mesopotamians burned wooden images of these monsters in a great bonfire to aid in this battle. .
In northern Solstice celebrations, the gods were called on to drive back the forces (gods, demons or giants) of winter. As the snows began to fall each year and the herds found foraging progressively difficult, the Nordic peoples harvested their grain and slaughtered many of their animals in preparation for the long winter to come. What were later called demons may have originally been spirits of the field and the spirits of those slaughtered beasts. Presumably, some of these spirits were killed for the benefit of men, and so took retribution. Children were warned of the “old corn woman” or “corn wolf” which could be seen by the movement of grain in the fields. .
These wild spirits were thought to roam the land; on the longest nights, some men were thought to transform into beasts, such as the werewolf. They would break into houses and ravage the cellars, drinking all the ale and mead, and were thus easily distinguished from their more natural cousins. Another man-beast was the Klapperbock, a goat-man dressed in goatskin. In present day Denmark he has become a gift-giver, but is out to get those children who have misbehaved during the year. Children born during this season were feared in danger of becoming werewolves. .
Thor was honored in the celebration of Mothernite; a straw goat was made, called the Jule-buken in honor of the goats which pulled his chariot. The goat was made out of the last straw cut from the autumn harvest and was burned in Thor’s honor. The last straw cut from a field was thought to contain the spirit of the field, and as burned as a prayer for renewal by sacrifice. Processions of masked characters called Julebukk after Thor’s Goat, wandered the streets. Later this became a children’s custom, and they went from house to house asking for treats or threatening mischief.
Bonfires of ash or hazel, called Julebaal by the Scandinavians, were lit to defy the Frost King, and to aid Odin and Thor in the Wild Hunt, Asgardereid. With them would be a great army of shouting horsemen and baying hounds which could be heard in the winter storms. Thor crossed the sky in his goat-drawn chariot and Odin traveled across the land on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, distributing rewards and punishments.
The legend of the Wild Hunt continued after the coming of Christianity, but its leader became the devil, Hellekin, who rode with his host of demons and the damned in the search of lost souls. Once tradition claims that a houndsman was condemned to hunt forever because he hunted on Sunday, breaking the Sabbath, and that one could hear the mournful wailing of dogs in the winter wind.
Yuletide Demons and Christmas
Folk custom kept alive the processions of Saturnalia and the Wild Hunt beyond their Pagan usage. The primal men of Saturnalia became “wild men,” werewolves and werebears. These feral men were said to live in the wild lands between the towns, in the stone crags of the mountains, in forests and holes. Natural landmarks were named for them: “the wild man’s hole” or the “house of the wild woman”. They were lords of the wild animals and could call down storms. Legends grew up about their fierceness, though they could often be made docile though music, or could be enticed and captured by beautiful women or innocent girls.
Cults of the “wild men” were widespread and well documented during the Middle Ages. Prior to every church fast was a carnival or “farewell to meat” festival, often sponsored by butcher’s guilds. At every carnival was a masked parade, often loud and lascivious. The “wild men” found their way to these carnivals, much to the chagrin of the clergy. These “masked mummers” often became roving gangs of destruction, breaking into homes and stealing wine, beer, food, and chasing anyone they could find, especially pretty women.
During the seventh century, Archbishop Theodor called for the repentance and punishment of any who, “on the Kalends of January, clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and carry heads of animals,” calling the practice, Daemoniacum.
During the ninth century, Hincmar of Reims called out against “turpia ioca cum urso” or reprehensible plays with the bear. He said, “One should not allow reprehensible plays with the bear nor with woman dances to be performed before one, nor should one permit the wearing of demonic masks popularly known as talamascae.” 1 It is likely that men, rather than bears, played the principle role.
These plays, later called “playing with the wild man,” may have been continuations of Pagan ritual observances of the turning of the season and the mating of the “hunter and the earth mother.” Some of these plays involved the killing and sometimes the resurrection of the “bear”, possibly as a sacrificial victim to insure the earth’s springtime rebirth. Whatever religious significance may have spawned these folk plays and pageants, they were ancient, widespread and popular, and the prohibitions did not work.
St. Nicholas in the Middle Ages
As Europe became Christianized, Nicholas took on more and more aspects of the old gods. He traveled, like Odin, on a white horse who could travel great distances instantly. Like Odin and Saturn, he judged the innocent and guilty, and he distributed rewards and punishments.
On St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, a man dressed in the episcopal robes and miter of St. Nicholas would ride into town on a white horse, often accompanied by “wild” or “demonic” assistants. Nicholas would judge the children and reward the good ones with presents and treats, while the Devil and his demons would punish the bad with whippings or gifts of coal.
One of the legends of St. Nicholas tells of a time when he was challenged by the Devil. Nicholas was traveling along a lonely road between towns as part of the duties of his bishopric. His horse became bogged down in the mud of the road. The Devil, seeing an opportunity to get the better of the holy man, appeared before him, demanding that Nicholas turn and flee. Nicholas stood fast and ordered the Devil to lead his horse to town in the name of God. This the Devil was forced to do, bound by the saint’s faith. 2 Because of this, Nicholas was sometimes depicted accompanied by the Devil enchained. For this reason the principle attendant of St Nicholas became the Devil, often with a host of lesser demons all clad in the straw and ragged animal skin costumes of their forebearers.
In Flanders (the Netherlands), Nicholas wore crimson episcopal vestments and a gold miter and road into town on a white horse. He was followed by the black-faced and horned “Black Peter”. Although Black Peter was sometimes made u to look like a Moor, he personified the Devil. St. Nicholas would reward the good children, and Black Peter would punish the bad with a birch want and threats of Hell. Black Peter was always garbed in black; however, during the Spanish occupation in the 16th century, Black Peter began to have a distinct preference for Spanish fashion. Instead of threatening bad children with Hell, he threatened to take them to Spain!
There were a number of different names and versions of Black Peter in northern and central Europe, such as Klaubauf, Hans Trapp, or Knecht Rupprecht. 3 Knecht Rupprecht was masked and dressed in straws and skins. He wore cow bells and carried a bag of ashes on a long staff. Often he was accompanied by a band of demons, similarly attired.
In Bavaria, Nicholas delivered presents to the children in their homes. He was assisted by Nikolo-Weibl, a boy dressed as a girl, and twelve Buttenmandln, who dressed with shaggy fir hoods and animal masks. After the presents were distributed, he commanded the Buttenmandln to clear the room, which they did with whoops and shouts, whipping everyone in the room indiscriminately. These whippings were thought to bring good luck and prosperity, harkening back to the ancient Roman blessings during the festival of Lupercalia.
In the High Alps, the demonic procession was led by tow “Ghosts of the Field” wearing straw and clearing the way with leather whips. A goat-headed figure, similar to the Welsh Hodening Horse, would bleat and paw under the windows of fickle or unfaithful women, and would chase sinners with a birch rod.
In the mountains of Austria, St Nicholas was met by the Krampuses, goat men who came out of the mountains bearing torches. They wore ankle-length goatskins, belted with chains with large hollow iron bells. Their black masks bore huge horns, jagged teeth and bulging eyes. From their mouths dangled bright red tongues. The Krampuses followed St. Nicholas to town yelling, rattling their chains and banging their bells. Sometimes St. Nicholas was accompanied by a certain Krampus named Klaubauf who did the saint’s bidding. 4 His name comes from “Kalub auf!” meaning “Pick’em up”, the command he gave as he threw treats of apples and nuts to the children.
The Krampuses ran through the village chasing girls foolish enough to be in the streets, forcing them to render up a kiss in ransom if they were caught. The only protection from these demons were special ceremonies, fireworks and bonfires. Barns were smoked and the initials of the Three Wise Men were written above the doors.
In Czechoslovakia, St. Nicholas (Svanty Mikalas) was accompanied by the demon Cert, who was garbed in black and carried a whip and chains as symbols of the punishment in store for evildoers. They, together with a good angel, would descend from heaven on a golden cord to distribute rewards and punishment.
It was not unheard of for demons to be female as well, called Budelfrau, Bercheel, Buzebergt, Frau Holle, Perchte, Pudelmutter and other names. Derivatives perhaps of “Berchta”, Odin’s wife (Frigg) and the “old corn woman.
In Greece, the peasants were plagued by demons called Kallikantzaroi or Karkantzari. The Karkantzari were half-human troll-like creatures who chopped away all year at the roots of the tree that bears up the earth. On Christmas, the tree is renewed by the birth of Christ, causing the Karkantzari to rise up from their subterranean caverns in spiteful fury. They wandered throughout Macedonia from Christmas to the Epiphany, looking for persons who had feasted overly well and fallen asleep. The slipped in through the through the chimney and beat the sleeper mercilessly. They were also known to ride on people’s backs and force them to dance until exhausted.
There were several ways to protect against these demons. One was to keep the Christmas lamp, the skarkantalos, lit throughout the twelve-day season. Another way was to burn old shoes, saved during the year for this purpose; the smell was said to drive them out. One could also put the jaw bone of a pig behind the door, or hang it in the chimney to prevent them from entering the house. A simple exorcism could be performed by a priest. The priest dipped a cross, intertwined with sprigs of basil, into a copper bowl of Holy Water. He then blessed and splashed each room with a bit of Holy water from the cross. Vanquished, the Karkanzari vanished to the depths for the next year. Any child born during the twelve days of Christmas was in danger of becoming a Karkantzari. To prevent this, the child was wrapped in garlic or straw, or had his toe nails singed.
Although the legends and lore of Christmas demons were passed along by folk and peasant customs, it should not be assumed that the court did not recognize them in their own way. during one of King Henry ViII’s Twelfth Night banquets, a mock battle against these demons was fought:
“Likewise on the Twelve night, the king and the queene came into the hall at Greenewich, and suddenlie entered a tent of cloath of goal; and before the tent stood foure men of armes, armed at all points, with swords in their hands; and suddenlie, with noise of trumpets entered foure other persons all armed, and ran to the other foure, and there was a great and fierce fight. And, suddenlie, out of a place like a wood, eight wild men, all apparelled in greene moss, made with sleved silke, with ouglie weapons, and terrible visages, and there fought withe the armed knights eight to eight: and after long fighting, the armed knights drove the wild men out of their places, and followed the chase out of the hall, and when they were departed, the ten opened, and there came out six lords and six ladies richlie apparelled, and dansed a great time. When they had dansed their pleasure, they entered the ten againe, which was conveied out of the hall; then the king and the queene were served with a right sumptuous banket.” 5
Afterward by the Author:
If I wrote this today it would be a very different article. It was written years prior to my access to the internet. Much of this research was arcane then, but easily accessible now, and some of what seemed like good research at the time I now find questionable. I would be far more cautious with my suppositions today than I was at the time.
1. Bernheimer Wild Men of the Middle Ages, pp. 50-55.
2. Although I have heard this legend, it has eluded my searches to document it. I fear you may have to take it with a grain of salt.
3. Knecht Rupprecht, although ancient in character, was first referred to in writing in a Christmas play in 1668, and was condemned by the Catholic Church some years later as being the Devil.
4. Jones, p. 311.
5. Ashton, A Right Merrie Christmasse, pp. 15-16.
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