Holidays with Demons, Sadists, and Other Devourers of Children

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Kiddies, consider yourselves warned (photograph by George Brett)

Winter holidays are a time of reflection, relaxation, and acting out our suppressed emotions by dressing up like sadistic demons. Let’s take a look at how cultures around the world celebrate the monsters and cryptid beasts of winter as they parade the streets, ward off evil spirits, and threaten little children.

Belsnickel – Pennsylvania Dutch/German
Belsnickel, a character from German lore, is a cantankerous tattered old man with a simple motivation: flogging children. The man is whip-crazy, hunting down mischievous kids and playing bad cop to Santa’s good cop. In Germany and Pennsylvania Dutch communities, Belsnickel appears in dilapidated furs and a sooty face, carries a bundle of switches, and terrifies the local naughty children with threats of a good thrashing. Belsnickel precedes the visit of St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, by a couple weeks ensuring that the wayward children rectify their behavior by Christmastime.

Belsnickel brandishing his twigs

Belsnickel brandishing his twigs (photograph by Peptobismolman1)

Pennsylvania German children can expect a violent scraping of birch switches at the door heralding Belsnickel’s arrival. The unkempt thing on the doorstep enters the home and questions the children’s righteousness. If the kiddies have been good, he tosses candies upon the floor. If they greedily scramble to retrieve the sweets, he scolds them with the sharp wrath of the switch. Can’t win, can you, kids?

Though several Pennsylvania German and Dutch communities have suffered the ire of Belsnickel for well over a century, they still invite him to the annual party. The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown, Berks County, and the Lehigh County Historical Society commemorate Christmas with a real life Belsnickel ready at the whip.

Kukeri and their towering fecundity

Kukeri and their towering fecundity (photograph by Klearchos Kapoutsis)

Kukeri – Bulgaria
In Bulgaria between New Year and Lent, the kukeri, or mummers, take to the streets in a striking masquerade and procession to banish evil spirits from the villages. Also taking place throughout the Balkans and Greece, the ritualistic pagan traditional finds men bedecked in elaborate towering costumes made of fur pelts, wooden masks and phalluses, and a belt of giant copper cowbells. Kuker is a deity who signifies fertility, celebrates the new agricultural season, and heralds in the regenerative resources of spring, the ancient new year. The ritual can be traced back to the Bulgarian’s Thracian ancestors, who deified Dionysus, a god of wine, sex, madness, and other physical ecstasies. The kukeri visit the homes of the village, by force if need be, and symbolically bless them with a prosperous year. They often act out dramatic scenes, including acts of sex, death, and rebirth.

Kukeri on the prowl

Kukeri on the prowl (photograph by Elena Chochkova)

The Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games (Mummer’s Games), established in 1966, held in Pernik, is the largest folklore festival of Bulgarian culture.

Here comes Krampus (photograph by Giulio)

Here comes Krampus (photograph by Giulio)

Krampus – Alpine countries
Krampus, Krampus, Krampus, where do we begin? Named for the old German word for “claw,” this bestial creature has scratched his way to commercial success as the bad boy of the Yuletide season. Krampus plays the anti-St. Nicholas in a vision of evil magnificence: hulking, blackened, and goat-like, with sharpened horns and a serpentine tongue. While primarily clomping his cloven hoof (the other foot being a claw-pronged bear paw) across the lands of Austria, Southern Germany and other Alpine countries, his reputation has emerged in cultures all across Europe as the most infamous of holiday demons. Similar to many of our mythical creatures of the pre-Christian holiday season, Krampus serves to strike fear in the hearts of young babes. Yet, where other beasts merely threaten punishment to the immoral, Krampus kidnaps them and whisks them away to his evil den.

Krampus drooling over the prospect of thrashing naughty young tots (photograph by Horst A. Kandutsch)

Krampus drooling over the prospect of thrashing naughty young tots (photograph by Horst A. Kandutsch)

Mari Lwyd's gaping skull (photograph by Andy Dingley)

Mari Lwyd’s gaping skull (photograph by Andy Dingley)

Mari Lwyd – Wales
Next, on New Year’s Eve, we travel to Wales, where Yuletide revelry is still in full force. Cups of Wassail punch are passed around to the sounds of clinking glass and merriment, perhaps in preparation for a Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening). Suddenly you hear a knock at the door. Is it a group of carolers? Why no, it’s Mari Lwyd, the wraithlike specter of an old grey horse who’s gaping skull seems to float above a mass of ectoplasm, and she wants inside your home. You’re sort of obligated to let her in and appease her with cakes, ale punch, and even money. The village of Llangynwyd, near Bridgend holds re-enactments of the ritual with burning torches succeeding the Mari on New Year’s Eve.

The Badalisc knows about all of your bad things (photograph by Luca Giarelli)

The Badalisc knows about all of your bad things (photograph by Luca Giarelli)

Badalisc – Val Camonica, Italy
Hailing from Val Camonica, Italy, the Badalisc, or Badalisk, is a woodsy creature who is dumb as a stick and looks like one, too. Appearing as an oversized worm with an enormous, furry, horned head, flashing eyes, and gaping mouth, his main form of malevolence revolves around annoying the community with his insipid gossip. The village of Andrista celebrates the feast of Badalisc in a ritualistic tradition every year during the period of Epiphany on January 5th and 6th. The Badalisc is captured by the townspeople and dragged around the village while being lured by a sexy young woman. After some typical old world drumming, fighting with a hunchback, and bickering with the witches, the Badalisc gives his speech, exposing the transgressions of society. Eventually he is set free to crawl back into the woods until the local residents have racked up enough sinful stories for Badalisc to reveal the following year.

Badalisc in action (photograph by Luca Giarelli)

Badalisc in action (photograph by Luca Giarelli)

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