Category: holidays

The Dead Lover’s Heart

The Dead Lover’s Heart

Whether freshly removed or strangely preserved after death, the dead lover’s heart occasionally has continued to be embraced as a repository of intensely shared romantic experience. This Valentine’s Day episode explores two different narratives touching on that theme: a historical tale from the 19th-century literary culture of England and a collection of related medieval legends, literature, and song.

The first half of our episode looks at the strange circumstance surrounding the death, in 1822,  of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the postmortem keepsake inherited by his wife Mary Shelley.

Louis Fournier’s “The Funeral of Shelley,” 1889.

The second half examines two gruesome narratives taken from the 14th century, both from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, namely that of the ill-fated lovers Ghismonda & Guiscardo (First Story, Day Four) and of the tragic romantic exploits of Guilhem de Cabestaing (Ninth story, Day Four).  Incidentally, our Valentine’s Day show from last year also explores another gruesome tale from The Decameron.

De Cabestaing was an actual historical figure, a Catalan ministrel, whose fictional vida (biography) was often attached to collections of his ballads and served as Boccaccio’s inspiration.

We also look at the Ley of ’Ignaure, a chivalric romance written by the Burgundian French author, Renaud de Beaujeu, probably around the year 1200.  This was likely the source of Cabestaing’s vida, Boccaccio’s stories, and the English-Scottish ballad, “Lady Diamond,” from which we also hear a snippet.

"Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
“Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759 William Hogarth
A Christmas Ghost Story IV

A Christmas Ghost Story IV

In keeping with the old tradition of whiling away the nights of Christmas telling ghost stories, we bring you a tale published in 1912 by E.F. Benson.  Read by Mrs. Karswell, complete with sound FX and music as always.

If you’d like some additional listening of this type, we have three more recorded in previous years going back to 2018: Christmas Ghost Story III,  Christmas Ghost Story II, and Christmas Ghost Story I.

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

In earlier centuries, Americans partook in many of the same dark Christmas traditions that gave birth to Europe’s Krampus.  This episode examines our untamed holiday history.

The most obvious example of this is the character of Belsnickel, (sometimes: Pelznickel, Belschnickle, Bells Nickel, etc.), who, like the Krampus, usually appeared on St. Nicholas Day, carrying a whip with which to threaten or strike naughty children. He was found particularly in German-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, but also in Appalachian West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Southern Indiana.

Belsnickel’s costume could vary widely depending upon what was available to the performer, but usually involved a long coat, hat, and almost always false whiskers — all chosen primarily to cover the actor and make him difficult to recognize. For that same reason, his face would also often blackened with soot or covered by any sort of mask available.

Belsnickel drawing
Belsnickel illustration by Ralph Dunkelberger (1959) in Berks History Center (PA)

Belsnickel often wore a fur coat or hat, a coat trimmed with fur, or a fur-lined coat turned inside out (to create a weird effect and make the garment less recognizable). The choice of fur probably had less to do with some essential attribute of the character and more to do with the season itself. Nonetheless, the name “Belsnickel,” which is a derivation of the German “Pelznickel,” has often been incorrectly interpreted as “Fur Nicholas.” In fact, the “Pelz” here derives from pelzen, meaning, “to beat.”  Pelznickel (and Belsnickel) carried in his pocket or bag, small treats, which he would scatter over the ground. Naughty children trying to grab these would feel his whip.

Like Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus of Alpine Austria and Bavaria, the whip was the Belsnickel’s essential attribute. In fact, in the 1800s, Pelznickel/Belsnickel would probably not have been that different in appearance from the Krampus as the modern image we have of that creature was only standardized as such with advent of Krampus postcards and their imagery dreamed up by city-dwelling artists, along with growth of a competitive community of mask-carvers in the early 20th century.

The popularity of the Belsnickel tradition soon saw it spill over from its original December 5-6 celebration to all the days leading up to Christmas and later New Year.  As the tradition grew in popularity, Belsnickel was no longer represented as a solitary character but by groups of Belsnickels, whose behavior became increasingly rowdy and unwelcome. Rather than giving gifts or treats, these groups tended to ask for handouts from homes and businesses visited.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of American newspaper accounts documenting this trend.

Belsnickel appearing in groups. (photo: Museum of the Shenandoah Valley)

We also take a side-trip to South America, where the figure of Pelznickel arrived with German immigrants in the town of Guabiruba. Brazil. Unlike North America, where the Belsnickel had largely died out by the 1940s, Pelznickel events sponsored by the Sociedade dos Pelznickel continue to thrive – but with an interesting twist.  There, the Pelznickel wanders about outfitted  in moss and other tropical vegetation, accessorized with Krampus-like mask and horns.

Pelznickel Brazil
Pelznickel in Guabiruba, Brazil.

The Belsnickel gangs were not the only groups of costumed youth carousing or begging on American streets during the holiday.  Some of the earliest reports of this sort of thing come from Boston, where they were known as “Anticks” or “Fantasticals,” a name also used elsewhere.  In Philadelphia, they might be called”Belsnickels” or simply “clowns” or “shooters” (thanks to the fact that these groups tended to carry noisemakers, including guns).  In New York, these bands of noisemakers, often equipped with actual musical instruments played discordantly, were known as Callithumpians, or Callithumpian bands.

In Philadelphia, the rowdy costumed traditions of immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavian melded with those of the Germans and were eventually domesticated by civil authorities into a more manageable form, the annual Mummers’ Parade.

In New York, no such solution was found, and Mrs. Karswell reads for us dramatic newspaper account  from 1828 describing holiday chaos in that city.

Eventually a remedy to New York’s seasonal turmoil was suggested by John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, whose love for the traditions of “Old Amsterdam” suggested Holland’s patron Saint Nicholas as a distraction from the street carousing.  His re-creation of pious domestic rituals involving the saint would eventually displace holiday activity from the street to the home, and refocus festivities from rowdy unmarried men to children rewarded for good behavior.  Some peculiar twists and turns along the way are described.

st. nick
St. Nicholas material Pintard commissioned for the New York Historical Society.

NOTE: This episode consists of material originally written for the book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, but excised due to page-count.  Mr. Ridenour’s book, it should be noted, happens to make an outstanding gift for the holidays.

The book by your host
The book by your host. A most excellent gift!

 

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

The Hellish Harlequin: Phantom Hordes to Father Christmas

Harlequin is an enigmatic figure with roots in dark folklore of France, specifically that of the Wild Hunt (Chasse Sauvage) a nocturnal procession of ghosts or devils, particularly associated with the time around Christmas and New Year.  The myth is also common to England and examined more closely in its Germanic manifestation in Episode 16, “The Haunted Season.” We open with a snippet from an album dedicated to Hellequin’s folkore by a Belgian band called Maisnée d’Hellequin.

In the show, we trace a thread leading from medieval stories of Hellequin (Harleqin’s ancestor in France) and King Herla (the English equivalent) to the more recent theatrical figure of Harlequin, along the way examining a link with the traditional English Christmas play (mummers’ play) and its role in the evolution of the figure of Father Christmas.

 

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our first story comes from the French-Norman monk Oderic Vitalis, from volume two of his Ecclesiastical History. It was written in about 1140, making it not only the first account mentioning Hellequin (“Herlequin” in his text) but also the first European ghost story, one Vitalis relates as a true event transpiring on New Year’s Eve 1091, and told to him by an eyewitness, a priest, by the name of Vauquilin (Walkelin).

While returning  from a visit to an ailing member of his parish, Vauquilin, hears the thunder of what sounds like an approaching army and is met by a giant with a club, whom he recognizes as Hellequin and who in this case serves as a sort of herald of the ghostly crew that follows.  It’s a richly detailed and extravagantly ghoulish tale, splendidly read by our own Mrs. Karswell.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say, that the spirits Vauquilin sees passing are enduring a sort of purgatorial torment for past sins, an apparently temporary but unenviable state of earthbound damnation.  (For more on medival tales of ghosts visiting mortals from purgatory, see our “Ghosts from Purgatory” episode.)  In the procession, these sinners are accompanied by devils who torture them, chief among these, apparently Hellequin.

Our next story, from around 1190 paints a more detailed picture of the English version of Hellequin, King Herla. It was written in Wales by the courtier Walter Map and contained in his eccentric collection of myths and pseudo-historical anecdotes called De Nugis Curialium, or “trifles for the court.”  This one’s more of an origin story explaining King Herla’s transition from mortal king to ghostly rider.  I won’t give away the details on this one either, but it involves a dwarf king’s wedding party inside a mountain, parting gifts, and bad gift etiquette.

1601
A darker Harlequin from the 1601 book, Compositions de rhétorique de Mr. Don Arlequin

Our third story comes from 14th-century France and is a bit different as it doesn’t describe what are supposed to be supernatural events but a representation of this, a fictional procession imitating Hellequin’s ride.

The procession in this text takes the form of a charivari, a sort of parade with participants noisily banging pots and pans or playing discordant music on various instruments. Charivaris were most commonly occasioned by weddings, in particular those which defied some social convention, such as the rushed wedding of a widow or widower who not honoring a suitable period of mourning.

In our story, the wedding is that of a figure named Fauvel, who is marrying the allegorical figure of Vainglory. Fauvel, by the way, is a horse representing all the worst traits of social climbers of the day.

The satiric Romance of Fauvel (“Romance” = “novel”) was written in 1316 by a Gervais du Bus, then much enlarged in 1316 with additions, including our charivari scene, by another writer by the name of de Pesstain.  The text describes a particularly carnivalesque scene including a bizarre, wheeled noise-making machine, and all sorts of taboo-breaking behavior by the participants. The connection between the Wild Hunt and carnival is also noted in an 18th-century German carnival procession we hear described, one mimicking in this case Frau Holde and her retinue. The Fauvel passage ends with the narrator encountering a giant recognized as Hellequin, who is bringing up the rear — leading from behind in this case.

Fauvel
Charivari illustration from The Romance of Fauvel.

We then have a look at the theatrical, Harlequin who originated in the 16th century as a stock figure from the Italian commedia della’arte, where he’s known as Arlecchino. He wears a black half-mask along with a suit sewn with multicolored diamonds. And he always carries a sort of short club, an element that seems to be borrowed from the diabolical Hellequin.  Though he’s most well known as an Italian figure, Arlecchino seems to have his source, as a theatrical entity, in a devil of this name from medieval French mystery plays.  We also look at some supernatural Hellquins in secular plays including a 13th-century work by the Norman poet Bourdet and the satiric work, Le Jeu de la feuillée by Adam de la Halle.

We then follow the theatrical Harlequin to England where in the 18th century, the commedia plays morphed into were called “harliquinades,” frothy comedies, which eventually evolved into the British tradition of Christmas pantos/pantomimes.

We also examine a little remarked upon influence of the commedia and harliquinades on England’s seasonal mummer’s plays, particularly the traditional Christmas Play.  An echo of Arlecchino’s trademark slapstick, or club, along with a mumming character called “Father Beelzebub” helps us connect the character of Father Christmas found in these plays with the devilish old Hellequin/Herla of French and Anglo-Norman folklore.

Father Christmas (on left) from Sandys Christmastide, its History, Festivities and Carols (1852)

 

Halloween Bonus Episode

Halloween Bonus Episode

As a short holiday bonus, we’re offering this special episode examining some obscure aspects of Halloween as manifested in our lives today. Forgotten traditions associated with the holiday arise in surprising forms many of us may not initially recognize. Simple occurrences perceived as nothing more than an everyday nuisance come into focus during our holidays – if we are attentive – as something making sense only in the light of old folkways, superstitions, and beliefs. Many of us have had these experiences without considering such context and associated old calendrical celebrations. Halloween, in particular, has drifted far from its original cultural significance, but in recognizing patterns of repetition within history, we may recognize a surprising confluence with the old holidays known to our ancestors and thereby allow ourselves to experience the same, albeit in a modern idiom. Extreme care, however, must be exercised, in such pursuits, which can bring with them bitter lessons in the fragility of our existence.

Spook Shows

Spook Shows

Midnight Spook Shows featured stage illusions borrowing from techniques used in fraudulent seances alongside vaudeville-style comedy and burlesque. Performances were staged in movie theaters, paired with a film screening, usually but not exclusively from the horror genre.  The tradition began in the mid to late 1930s and ran into the early ’70s, reaching its heyday in the ’50s.  After World War II, shows began catering to younger audiences and emphasizing movie monsters, horror and gore.

In this episode we examine the history of the genre and a few of its colorful artists, sometimes called “ghostmasters.”  Two leading lights in the field were (Dr.) Bill Neff, and Dr. Silkini (actually a pair of brothers Jack and Wyman Baker).  Other practitioners we look at include Raymond Corbin (Ray-Mond), George Marquis, Phillip Morris (Dr. Evil), Kara-Kum, and the various shows presented by Joe Karston.  Bela Lugosi dabbled in the field and is discussed.

This episode picks up the thread from last October’s show about unruly American Halloween celebrations, those of the teens and twenties. While the 1930s offered relatively sedate Spook Shows, by their 1950s heyday, as box-office lines wrapped the block and theater balconies sagged under the weight of screaming teenagers, the Spook Shows shared something of that unruly, possibly even dangerous, spirit of old Halloween.

 

 

 

 

The Goblins and the Gravedigger

The Goblins and the Gravedigger

Bone and Sickle continues its holiday tradition of Christmas ghost stories, or a goblin story, in this case. Our tale about an encounter between a gravedigger, or sexton, and a host of goblins is extracted from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, The Pickwick Papers.  Strangely, it is not Dickens’ only Christmas goblin story.

As a special holiday treat, our reader for the story beloved personality well known to all Bone and Sickle listeners.

1873 illustration for "The Pickwick Papers" by Thomas Nast.
1873 illustration for “The Pickwick Papers” by Thomas Nast.
Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, the Belly-Slitter

Frau Perchta, sometimes known as “the Belly-Slitter” for the trademark punishment she’s said to inflict on disobedient or lazy children, is figure of Alpine folklore of Austria and Germany in many ways similar to the Krampus.

“Perchta” is only one spelling or name for this figure, who may also go by Pehrta, Berchte, Berta, and a myriad of other names.  A particularly good representation of the figure, a woodcut from 1750, identifies her as the “Butzen-Bercht,” with the word “Butzen” coming from a word for “bogeyman.”  This word also appears in a classic 19th-century German children’s song and game “Es Tanzt Ein Bi-Ba Butzemann,” or “A Bogeyman is Dancing,” from which we hear a clip at the show’s start.

The woodcut in question depicts a crone-like character with dripping, warty nose, who is carrying on her back a basket filled with screaming children, all girls.  She stands before the open door of a house where more girls are screaming, and is holding a dangerous looking pronged staff as well as a distaff, the stick used to hold fibers that will be spun into wool or flax on a spinning wheel.  The importance of the illustration is the way it emphasizes Perchta’s connection to spinning and to the females of the household responsible for this task.  The woodcut also features some text delightfully detailing a series of horrid threats delivered by Perchta, dramatically read by Mrs. Karswell.

Perchta’s name it comes from her association with Epiphany or Twelfth Night, January 6, the last of the “Twelve Days” or nights of Christmas, the “Haunted Season,” we discussed last year in our episode of that name. “Perchta” is a corruption of the word giberahta in the Old High German term for Epiphany, “giberahta naht,” meaning, the “night of shining forth or manifestation.

Now there’s another name many of you will have encountered if you’re read up on Perchta: Perchten, figures very similar to the Krampus. (Perchten is plural. The singular is Percht.)

“Berchtengehen” ("Going as Perchten") from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)
“Berchtengehen” (“Going as Perchten”) from illustrierte Chronik der Zeit (1890)

While the first mention of Perchta appears around 1200, the word “Perchten” is not employed until centuries later. In 1468, there appears a reference to her retinue, but its members are not called Perchten, nor do they explicitly resemble Perchten as we think of them today. At this stage in Perchta’s mythology, the company she leads is most often understood as spirits of the departed. With time, and frequent attacks from the pulpit, Perchta’s pagan company came to be commonly feared not as ghosts but as demons, something presumably closer to the horned figures we now know.  By the 15th century, a tradition involving costumed processions or appearances of these figures had evolved. The very first illustration we have of Perchta seems to show not the figure herself, but in fact a masker impersonating “Percht with the iron nose.” It appears in South Tyrolean poet Hans Vintler’s 1411 Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”).

Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent
Frau Perchta (right) from Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent

This beaklike nose of Perchta may be related the figure’s ancient connection to the classical strix (plural striges) which appears in both Greek and Latin texts.  The strix is bird of ill omen, often thought of as an owl, one that visited at humans at night to feed on blood and flesh.  Bird-like representations of Perchta or the Perchten appear in the Schnabelperchten (“beaked Perchten“) figures that appear in the town of Rauris, Austria.

In addtion to Perchta threatening to cut open the bellies of the disobedient, she’s sometimes said to stamp on those who offend her. In certain regions, it is the Stempe, or the Trempe (from the German words for “stamp” or “trample”) who appears to frighten the disobedient on Twelfth Night.  A medieval poem, alluding to the terrible Stempe, one quoted in Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, is read by Mrs. Karswell.

One way to avoid Perctha’s wrath was to prepare certain foods, particularly a porridge called Perchtenmilch, which would be partially consumed by the family on Twelfth Night with a portion set aside as an offering to the Perchten. Certain signs,  that the porridge had been enjoyed by the night-traveling spirits could provide omens for the coming year.  Mrs. Karswell reads an  Austrian account from 1900 detailing these.

This custom of leaving out offerings on this night was frequently condemned by the clergy in Austria and Germany, and we hear similar practice involving the Swiss “Blessed Ones” (sälïgen Lütt) derided in an 17th-century account by  Renward Cysat, a city clerk of Lucerne.

The dead who accompany Perchta and consume these offerings are in many tales called the Heimchen, the spirits of children who have not received baptism.  Several tales of Perchta and her Heimchen from Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie are recounted.

Our episode concludes examining a peculiar connection between Perchta and the beloved English and American figure of Mother Goose.

Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen
Perchta/Holda with the Heimchen

 (Material in this episode taken from my book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.)

#17 Christmas Ghosts

#17 Christmas Ghosts

Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom.  A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James.  An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all!  (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)

#15 Saint, Devil, Sugar-Bread, & Whip: KRAMPUS AND NICHOLAS

#15 Saint, Devil, Sugar-Bread, & Whip: KRAMPUS AND NICHOLAS

The Krampus and St. Nicholas represent a folkloric duality embodying a mode of childrearing the Germans call “sugar-bread and whip” — in English, “carrot and stick.”  In this episode, the first of three exploring the darker folklore of the season, we look at the Krampus’ origins in the old custom of Krampus and Nicholas house-visits and the older Alpine “Nicholas Plays.”

Struwwelpeter: "The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.
Struwwelpeter: “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.

We begin our discussion with a consideration of the “sugar-bread and whip” literary example par excellence, Der Struwwelpeter, the 19th-century German children’s book in which “un-groomed Peter,” and other misbehaving children meet dreadful ends.  An clip from a 1955 cinematic version of the story from Germany, and a bit of The Tiger Lillies’ “junk opera,” Shockheaded Peter is included.

Hans Weiditz's "Child Eater"
Hans Weiditz’s “Child Eater”

As the Krampus is, at root, simply a bogeyman, we discuss some early (and ghastly) images of German bogeymen from Carnival broadsides, which might be considered forerunners of the Krampus.  The “Child-Eater Fountain” in Bern, Switzerland, a sculptural rendering of these same figures, is also mentioned.

A soliloquy delivered by a rhyming Krampus in an old 19th-century Alpine “Nicholas play,” introduces us to the figure. The verse is a translation from your host’s book The Krampus and The Old, Dark Christmas, as is much of the material in this episode.

Next we discuss the source of the Krampuslauf (Krampus run) tradition in the old custom of house-visits made by costumed troupes consisting of a St. Nicholas, Krampuses, angel assistants to the saint, and an odd backwoodsy character called Körbelträger (basket carrier).  Part of the visit discussed is  small test of the children’s good character consisting of a performance for St. Nicholas of a memorized poem or song.  A traditional song for this occasion is “Lasst uns froh und munter sein,” which we hear in a clip.  We also hear some background sound effects provided by an excellent video depicting traditional Krampus customs in Austria’s Gastein Valley.

Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour
Traditional Krampus troupe from Gastein Valley. Photo: Al Ridenour

We then have a look at ways in which the tradition of Nicholas plays featuring the saint mingled with local pagan folklore of the Perchten, winter spirits of the German-speaking Alps, and hear a number of historic accounts illustrating how this rowdy element worked its ways into the Nicholas customs of centuries gone by.  Various outrageous are documented from drunken Nicholases to actual deaths of performers.

The show concludes with a more in-depth look at these Nicholas plays, including some bawdy slapsticks elements hardly befitting a saint.  Wilkinson delivers a stirring rendition of the “Lucifer Sermon,” a devilish rant, traditionally concluding these plays.

LISTENER NOTE: During our intro segment, we also receive a phone message from Mark Norman of The Folklore Podcast responding to the ongoing dilemma of the phantom cat, which seems to be haunting the Bone and Sickle studio-library.  (Listeners who have not yet tuned in to the Folklore Podcast, should also watch for Mr. Ridenour upcoming appearance on the show, in which he discusses some pagan aspects of the Krampus myth not covered elsewhere.)