I’m fascinated by the way mythology evolves. Each time a story is retold it gets subtly altered. Sometimes it’s a little like playing telephone — but very, very slowly. Other times, the people who codify the story shape the lasting version. The breadcrumb trail of changes is sometimes easy to follow.
Santa is everywhere this time of the year. I’m talking about the jolly department store, “Miracle on 34th Street” Santa. But he’s only one side, and one part, of the Saint Nicholas mythology. The Santa Claus with a sleigh full of toys (and electronics, jewelry & cars) is largely a commercialized incarnation of a 19th century version of much older and more complicated pagan characters.
In the Alpine region of Europe, Krampus is a dark counterpoint to Saint Nicholas. He’s a truly frightening monster punishing “bad” children and dragging them off in his sack. Traditionally adults wearing scary horned masks and shaggy goatskins “beat” kids with sticks. Krampus processions are still part of the holiday season in parts of Europe. I found some wild photos from last week’s celebrations in Austria, Germany and Italy on the Internet. Add some serious drinking to the masks, plus an early sunset and Krampusnacht is more Halloween than Halloween!
I was in the Netherlands a few years ago in early December. I didn’t realize when I made my plan to spend two weeks visiting friends in Nijmegen that my visit would coincide with the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas. It turned out to be an education.
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas has a strange sidekick — Black Pete. I liked the traditional cinnamon cookies. But I’m an American and the Dutch girl in blackface, wearing an odd variation on a Renaissance fool’s outfit while giving out the cookies freaked me out. I wound up quizzing a bunch of Dutch Tango dancers that night. Was Zwarte Piet a comic figure? Was he in charge of kidnapping the “bad” children and taking them away to Spain? And, was being kidnapped and taken to sunny Spain a terrible fate when you’re in the dark and cold of a Dutch winter? Needless to say, I got a variety of answers and this year I read about protests against Zwarte Piet as a racist icon in many communities in the Netherlands. We’ll see how this story evolves.
I’m pretty sure the cookies will remain, even if Black Pete gets edited out of the mythology.