The Dark Side of Santa

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.


  1. In Hungary we have Szent [saint] Miklos [Nicholas] but he comes early in December. This is from wiki :

    Although the role of gift-giver on Christmas Day itself is assigned to the Christ Child, on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ feast day of 6 December Hungarian children traditionally place a boot on their windowsill [2] waiting for Mikulás to come by and fill it with treats.

    There is no Mrs. Mikulas in Hungary.[3] In the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia, Mikulas/Miklavž often comes with two assistants: a good Angel who gives out presents to good children and a “Krampusz”, a mean elf, in some version a Devil, who punishes bad children.

    I guess the Karmpusz was imported into the legend. 🙂

    • Candy

      Another variation on the theme — and also early in December.

      If I remember correctly the Santa Day my Dutch friends celebrated was on December 5. They fondly remembered certain traditions about about giving presents to children that were tied to a riddle or a game. One told me a story about having to follow a string to get to the toy and about poem/riddles that he had to solve first.

      The scare your children into goodness aspect of the traditions is interesting to me. I’m not a mom, but… it seems cruel. Maybe it was an entire community’s idea of good parenting?

      • Our own Santa tradition has a watered down element of that negative side too. Santa knows who’s been naughty and nice?

        I think we have to remember that our attitudes to children being precious and fragile are relatively new. Historically kids were loved, yes, but they were also resources – e.g. working in the family fields etc. So it makes sense that communities would want to keep the younger generation on the straight and narrow. 🙂

        • Candy

          That absolutely true!
          Even when you look back at art, children are depicted as mini-adults until relatively recently. The long — and lengthening — time of immaturity in most communities is interesting. It’s a huge shift in responsibility and in how we nurture children.

          As for being naughty or nice, with all our anti-heroes and girls who love the bad guys (not to mention vampires) that’s also been turned on its head. Poor Santa… we all want to be at least a little bit naughty!

  2. It always troubles me when traditions like the black Pete, which is older than the racism that is being claimed, are misinterpreted and taken away because it hurt someone’s feelings.

    It is interesting to see how our traditions are changing and evolving. I do find it sad that our current US tradition is taking on such a materialistic spin. I love presents as much as anyone but within reason. There is no reason to spend several months pay just for one day.

    • Candy

      The materialism is shocking.
      Every year I find myself ranting about the car commercials with the bows around the luxury car — perfect gifts.
      Gifts? Big, new, fancy, expensive cars are “surprise gifts”?

      I just don’t get it — especially when the ads end with the financing numbers.

      Anyway, that’s my usual holiday rant. I feel it coming on in a day or two. LOL… Happy Seasonal Rantings!

  3. Anyway you look at it, Santa in all of his incarnations is a strange character. I really balk at the commercialization of Christmas too. Present-opening time with my niece and nephew always becomes an exercise in disbelief at many gifts they are given. My husband and I set a strict limit for what I spend on each other, and this year I think I’ve outdone myself with the strangeness of the themed gift package he’ll be receiving. Shhhh, it’s Zombies 🙂

    • Candy

      I’ve yet to figure out how to work Krampus into my gift giving. Although, when I told my dad about the Krampus and Black Pete stories, he told me that one of his aunts gave her “bad” son an actual sack of coal for Christmas one year.

      Most of my friends and I exchange things we know that the other person needs and will really use OR we simply do something together — make dinner together, go to the theater, etc. The massive waste of too much stuff can be oppressive and yet the U.S. economy seems to be dependent on the splurge at year’s end.