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.)
Historically, Christmastime in Central Europe was a season haunted by otherworldly spirits, werewolves, ghostly huntsmen, and wandering hordes of lost souls. This is particularly the case in the Krampus’ homeland of German-speaking Central Europe.
We open with a survey of the various frightful spirits said to be afoot this time of year. Bavaria, particularly the Bavarian Forest turn out to be particularly rich in such things, menaced by everything from spirits of the forests (Schratzn) and marshes to entities said to reside in mills, and historic castles. Historical figures with unsavory reputations including the legendary cowherd Woidhaus-Mich, Chatelaine Maria Freiin of Castle Rammelsberg and the Bavarian outsider prophet Mühlhiasl of Apoig are said to return as evil spirits this time of year. We hear a brief clip from Werner Herzog’s 1976 production, Heart of Glass, a lovely and peculiar treatment of Mühlhiasl’s story.
Just as the Krampus appears as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas on his feast day (and its eve), we encounter other frightful creatures from German culture said to represent similarly sinister incarnations of other saints celebrated in December. From the Upper Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps, there are the moss-encrusted Bärbele (“Barbaras”), or sometimes “Wild Barbaras,” and throughout Bavaria and Austria, St. Lucy was also inverted on her day (Dec. 13) as the “Luz,” or “ugly Lucy,” an entity particularly hungry for blood and ghastly punishments. We also meet “Bloody Thomas,” a figure appearing on the eve or night of St. Thomas Day, December 21.
Next we consider a raft of superstitions associated with the Twelve Nights, or Rauhnächte, a name likely derived from the German word for “smoke” (Rauch) thanks to the use of incense during these nights to dispel evil influences.
Of all the terrors unleashed during the nights around Christmas, the most widespread in German-speaking lands were those ghostly hordes in nocturnal processions, dead souls, solemnly walking, or wildly riding, the latter usually going under the name of “Wild Hunt” or “Furious Army.” This mythologem is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even North America, where the spirits appear in cowboy legends, and made their way into the 1940s country-western ballad “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”
Wilkinson reads for us some rather dramatic (and grisly) accounts of this form of apparition from the 16th century, and we hear a variety of accounts emphasizing the weird sounds that were said to accompany the Wild Hunt.
A number of figures were presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt, in particular the Germanic god, Odin, whose presence was associated with the superstition all the way into the 1800s as we hear from a newspaper account of the period.
We close the show with some folk tales recounting a similar phenomena in Austria and Switzerland, namely tales of the “Night Folk,” or “Death Folk,” nocturnal hordes whose appearance often heralded death or misfortunes.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)