A “program note” about our 2012 Holiday Show
In North America, we associate ghosts and ghouls and bumps in the night with Halloween; Christmas is a time of kindness and joy, a celebration of the best of human nature in secular as well as Christian communities. In Europe the dark and scary time of year was more extended. The kind of masquerading and wild behavior we still indulge in on October 31st could erupt on multiple dates throughout the cold dark months.
As Christianity spread throughout Northern Europe, new beliefs and powers were invoked to guard against the old fears. November 1st became All Saints Day; Saint Nicholas was honored on December 6th, and December 25th was celebrated as the birth of Christ the Savior.
Old customs die hard, and the Middle Ages were a brutal time. The hybrids that grew up as Christianity enveloped the old ways yielded a stern St. Nicholas, strong to aid the good people, accompanied by an ugly, demonic servant to punish the bad. This servant went by many names, but is chiefly remembered as Black Peter, or Krampus. Armed with a hand-full of birch switches, Krampus roamed the streets of Alpine towns on the night of December 5th, looking for disobedient children to whip or drag away with him to make a tasty dinner. Only the appearance of St. Nicholas when December 6th dawned could rein in this vengeful spirit. For many centuries this was acted out by townsfolk who donned masks and ran through the streets raising a ruckus, eventually quelled by the appearance of a man in the white robes of a bishop.
As Christmas becomes ever more commercial, with gifts escalating from the original oranges and ginger cookies to electronics that cost hundreds of dollars, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the old ways. When the evening closes in by four o’clock, and the dark and cold send you scuttling indoors, pause a minute to listen. Do you hear a rattle of chains? Be extra nice to your family tonight; you never know who might be watching!