The holiday called Christmas, designated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, is actually an amalgam of many winter holidays from around the world. Although many scholars believe the actual date of Jesus’ birth was June 17, 2BC (because of the appearance of the star that beckoned the Magi), December 25 was set as the date for Christmas in the 4th century by Pope Julius I as an attempt to Christianize midwinter pagan holidays such as Solstice and Saturnalia. Customs such as bringing evergreens inside, eating fat-laden foods, and hanging lights are universal responses to the cold, dark winter season. And while most of us are familiar with what we view as the “traditional” symbols of Christmas, there are even more regionally-specific customs that may to us sound odd, weird or just downright frightening.
Santa Claus is the “right jolly old elf” who keeps a nice and naughty list with the only penalty for the latter no toys and a lump of coal. Horned, hairy, half-goat, half-demon Krampus is his polar opposite. Krampus punishes naughty children by beating them or dragging them to his lair, or even to hell. Popular in Bavarian, Austrian and Slavic regions and possibly even pre-dating Christianity, the figure was relatively unknown in the west until recently. In the past few years, Krampus has appeared on American television shows Venture Brothers, Grimm, Supernatural, The Colbert Report, and American Dad; starred in a comic book; and inspired parties and parades across the U.S. He’s even the subject of a 2015 feature film.
Like Halloween mayhem (October 31) precedes the sanctity of All Saint’s Day (November 1), Krampusnacht (December 5) leads into the Feast of St. Nicholas the next day. With Saint Nicholas (Santa’s persona in these regions) clearly representing the forces of heavenly good, there seems to be little doubt as to Krampus’s true identity as the Devil, the Great Horned God, thus representing a holiday-themed “Judgement Day” for children.
Krampus isn’t the only menacing counterpart to St. Nicholas; other Germanic regions have Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht. France has Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard, and the Netherlands has the controversial Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter (which involves white people wearing blackface). All of these “anti-Santas” take the “naughty or nice” list a little more seriously than our Dear Ol’ Saint Nick.
THE POOP LOG
Caga Tio is a Christmas tradition in the Catalonian region of Spain. Caga is pronounced “caca,” and it means “poop.” Tio means “tree trunk” or “uncle.” So it is basically a tradition of the “pooping tree trunk.” In some areas, it’s also called Tio de Nadal (Christmas Log). What does the trunk poop? Why gifts, of course!
The Caga Tio is a small log of wood with a painted face and two front legs. It makes an appearance in homes every year on December 8, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Children keep the log as a pet until Christmas, feeding it and keeping it warm in the belief the log will grow if they feed it properly. Parents swap out the log each day with a larger one to simulate the appearance that the log is indeed growing. The Caga Tio is done growing by Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The full grown log (hollowed out and filled with small gifts like candies, nuts and little toys) is placed in the center of the living room and covered with a large red blanket. Children gather around, sing songs and, forgetting the careful nurturing they bestowed upon their pet log over the past three weeks, begin to hit the Caga Tio with sticks repeatedly, until it “poops” out the presents. In some areas, the log is placed partially in a burning fireplace, and ordered to defecate the gifts before it is removed. When it is finished, the final object dropped is a salt herring, a garlic bulb or an onion.
Any Catelan children emigrating to the U.S. must have a hell of a first meeting with their local department store Santa.
First – what is the Catalan obsession with pooping? The Cagener is a little porcelain figure of a man, normally hidden somewhere among the more traditional nativity scene characters, squatting down and…well, plopping one out. Children love examining the nativity scene each day and trying to find where the Cagener is “pooping.” The idea may seem terribly disrespectful to non-Catelans, but the Cagener is viewed as a sign of good luck; his poo fertilizes the land and provides a good harvest for the year to come. In modern times, Cagener figures are produced representing celebrities from the American president to Bono of U2 – and everyone in between. Caganers have been around since the 19th century; however, the Catalan government has recently banned them from official Christmas displays in recent years. Leave it to the government to spoil the fun.
In South Africa, to foster good behavior, children are told the story of Danny, a young boy who ate the Christmas cookies left for Santa, so angering his grandmother that she beat him to death. Danny supposedly haunts houses on Christmas Eve, looking for naughty children.
Maybe his grandmother confused him with a Caga Tio.
THE YULE CAT
The Yule Cat stalks the Icelandic hills and those who don’t receive new clothes before Christmas Eve are said to be devoured by this mythical beast. What cat people realize is that the Yule Cat is not angered just by the lack of new clothes – he is angered because no one has left the new clothes out for him to lie on. And they threw out the boxes.
So if you think the idea of an elderly man breaking into millions of homes every Christmas Eve night isn’t strange enough…think again. This Christmas, be sure to wear new clothes and leave the Christmas cookies alone, less Krampus comes to get you.