Interview with a Krampus

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit this year. The decorations are up, the lights are lit, and rebellious radio stations are pumping out classic holiday tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Most of my shopping is done, there are way too many cookies in my house, and a candy cane hangs on the star that tops our tree.

Everything is feeling like Christmas, and it’s kind of perfect. Or at least it was, until a more sinister holiday tradition found its way onto my radar. Before we snuggle into our beds to dream of sugarplums, I think it’s time we talk about Krampus.

carolers
I would give these people figgy pudding if they showed up on my doorstep.

Maybe you’ve always been aware of St. Nick’s demon counterpart. I grew up happy, so I didn’t know about him until a few years ago. And I never met him until last night.

The origin of this dark character is a little unclear. The name Krampus probably comes from Krampen, the German word for claw, though similar traditions have come from all over Europe and may predate the sweeter celebrations of Christmas.

He is part goat, part demon, reminiscent of the traditional horned Satan of Christianity, and he comes on Krampusnacht on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes lugging chains and carrying a bundle of birch branches for swatting naughty children. The truly rotten kiddos, he stuffs in the sack on his back and carries them off, presumably to eat them.

Yikes. Merry Christmas!

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Krampus is useful if you need to keep the kiddos out of the room where the Christmas gifts are hidden.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this particular tradition. Honestly, Santa breaking and entering from the rooftop to snack on cookies isn’t high on my list, either, but at least he’s not devouring the children.

But because I, thankfully, didn’t grow up with Krampus in my life, I thought I should learn a bit about him as his popularity resurges throughout Europe and the United States. I went to the one place where I knew he’d be.

Saint Charles, Missouri, not too far from where I live, hosts an annual celebration called Christmas Traditions through several blocks of its charming brick road Main Street that runs alongside the Missouri River.

It’s a great family event, where you can catch a horse-drawn carriage ride, buy chestnuts roasted on an open fire, and listen to roaming packs of Victorian carolers begging for figgy pudding. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, characters of Christmas, including Susie Snowflake, Tiny Tim, and a whole host of traditional Father Christmases from around the world gather along the shop-lined lane and mingle with the crowd, handing out trading cards and holiday cheer.

On Wednesday evenings you can find them, too, but that’s also when the darker side of Christmas comes out to play. That’s when I went looking for Krampus. I had a hard time finding him at first so I asked a kindly old Kris Kringle, who was visibly distressed by the question. “We keep the naughty characters on the north end of the street,” he explained. “I should warn you, they’re a tough bunch, a little rough around the edges.”

krampus2
One Christmas tradition I think I could do without.

I thanked him and headed north where I discovered an abominable snowman, the Ice Queen, and Jolakotturinn, an Icelandic mouse demon that also eats people and will now haunt my sugarplum dreams.

At last I spotted the man/goat/demon himself. He was busy wishing people a happy President’s Day, Labor Day, or Columbus Day—anything but Christmas, a holiday he didn’t care to acknowledge. He handed out cards only when children said the magic phrase: “Give me a card, now!” I didn’t actually see him stuff any of them into a bag, but I could tell he was thinking about it. I’d have asked him. I even planned to. But he was a little rough around the edges.

Is Krampus a part of your holiday traditions?

 

I Hope I Didn’t Ruin It

In 1906, Englishman George Albert Smith invented the Kinemacolor contraption for producing films in color. Smith was building on the ideas of Edward Turner who had done something similar in 1902, but passed away shortly after. For a good six years, Smith took the world of cinema if not by storm, then at least by steady shower.

Other techniques came along and soon surpassed the abilities of the Kinemacolor, and the world of cinema moved on and kind of forgot George Albert Smith. But film historians are beginning now to resurrect his work and have rediscovered how truly innovative and influential he was, not just because of the Kinemacolor, but also because with a previous career in hypnotism, Smith’s work had a sense of whimsy and wonder that was unique to film at the time.

Among some of his advances is the first ever use of parallel action in a film, which he did in the 1898 Santa Claus. And this is where I think the story gets really interesting, because even though no actual film historians that I found have made this claim, I think this man Smith basically invented the Hallmark Christmas Movie.

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Every Hallmark Christmas movie also includes a whimsical scene in which a Christmas tree is decorated. At least one person ends up wrapped in garland. And I love every moment. What?

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—those feel-good movies that you can’t help but turn on this time of year, even though you know exactly how they’re going to end. This is where I give you a “spoiler alert” warning, just in case you don’t know that the pretty career girl turns down the big promotion to pursue a relationship with the handsome, rustic single dad who reminds her of the true meaning of Christmas, works tirelessly to save the small town’s endangered holiday festival, and has a cute kid who wants her to celebrate with them. Did I ruin it? Sorry about that.

Obviously, George Albert Smith didn’t manage such an intricate plot in a film that lasts about one minute and sixteen seconds, but he did choose the right topic if he wanted to evoke a sense of wonder. The basic plot of his movie, in case you don’t have one minute and sixteen seconds to spare, is that a nanny tucks two children into bed, Santa comes down the chimney and leaves them presents, and they wake up to a great deal of Christmas joy.

It is likely that this is the first Christmas story ever shared in the medium of film, though the tradition certainly took off. From It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to yet another version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we love our Christmas movies.

scrooge
I bet even this guy likes to watch Hallmark Christmas movies. photo credit: H. Bos Dickens Festival 2015 via photopin (license)

It doesn’t really take much this time of year to conjure feelings of joy. No sophisticated plots or complicated emotional twists required. Even for those among us who find the holiday difficult or don’t celebrate it for one reason or another, it’s hard to shut out the warm fuzzies entirely. In those parts of the world where Christmas is widely observed, there is enough general holly jolly to penetrate nearly every heart. And if not, there are well over a hundred versions of A Christmas Carol to cheer your inner Scrooge.

But just to warn you, that one comes with a happy ending, too—Ebenezer Scrooge, the single-minded career man is reminded of the true meaning of Christmas and learns to open his heart to his family and friends, mostly because of a cute kid who loves Christmas and wants Scrooge to celebrate it with them. I hope I didn’t ruin it.

More Excuses and Turkey

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Yes, I do have more than one turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my friends here in the United States! And happy Thursday to all my friends around the world who will not be spending the day basting a turkey and attempting to remain calm while thirty-three relatives gather in your home that has a max capacity of much fewer than that. I’m not exaggerating here. I will have thirty-three people in my home today. I am thankful for each of them. So far.

I’ll be back to writing regular posts next week. In the meantime, I want you to know that I am thankful for each of you who takes the time to check in on my little corner of the blogosphere. No matter what you’re up to on this Thursday, I hope you have a great day!happy-thanksgiving-3767426__340

Head Foot Awareness Days

Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.

newfie
Not that kind of Newfoundlander, but this makes a much cuter picture than a giant squid carcass.

People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.

He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.

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The focal point of any good living room design. Public Domain, via. Wikimedia Commons

Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.

It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.

There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.

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Cephalopod is Latin for “head foot.” Kraken is Norwegian for “that cephalopod is going to eat you.” Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.

I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it  can’t hurt to be aware.

Yo’ Mama Likes Books So Much…

It’s been about six years since researchers Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman published in the reputable journal Iraq that they had made a stunning and important breakthrough. The two men had been working to translate an Ancient Babylonian tablet discovered by J. J. van Dijk in 1976. Much to the delight of the world, the tablet turned out to contain a series of riddles and punch lines, poorly written, most likely by a wisecracking youth.

Among the 3,500-year-old jokes is what Streck and Wasserman refer to as the oldest known Yo’ Mama joke. That may require a little stretch of the imagination. Part of the riddle is indecipherable, and what is there goes something like this: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”

Sadly, the answer to the incomplete question has also faded forever from history. But from context, it seems safe to assume that the riddle was not intended to flatter poor mama.

This really may have been the first time someone bothered to chisel an insulting joke about someone’s mother, though I doubt it was the first time such a joke was ever uttered. Writers and comedians and people looking to pick fights have been slinging mud at mothers for millennia, I suppose because they elicit a pretty universal response.

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Moms are pretty awesome.

No matter what our relationship with our mother, whether she is close to us, not so close, no longer with us, or was never a part of our life at all, mothers matter profoundly in the human experience. That truth transcends eras and cultural identities and it makes Yo’ Mama jokes, from the partial ancient ones to the cleverer ones of today, a little uncomfortable. Because most of us love our mamas, or at least know what it feels like to really want to be close to and adore our mamas.

As Mother’s Day comes up here in the US (on May 13, in case you’ve forgotten) I hope you’re thinking about ways to let yo’ mama know how much you love and appreciate how much she loves and appreciates you.

If you’re in need of a last minute gift idea, I’ve got one for you. Until May 13 (again, that’s Mother’s Day), you can follow the “Mother’s Day Book Sale” tab at the top of this post and get a personalized and signed copy of Launching Sheep & Other Stories. It’s even discounted 33% just because Yo’ Mama likes books so much that you should get her one for Mother’s Day.

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

pig roast
Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

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John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

foil hat
This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

santa list
This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

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No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

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A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs.