Will you be Meeting the Krampus or Čert?


Traditionally on December 5th and 6th, St. Nicholas walks from house to house in the cities and villages of Alpine and Central Europe to admonish and laud young and old. In the Alpine regions, he is accompanied by a Krampus (an evil creature, a devil of sorts), who is going to punish the bad children and adults on St. Nicholas′ command. For the honest children he normally has little presents. In Prague and the Czech-speaking areas of Central Europe, the čert (a clearly demonic character) accompanies St. Nicholas.

In Come Hell or High Water, both St. Nicholas and his čert appear:

“It was commonly supposed [in 1356] that St. Nicholas, as he made his rounds bestowing gifts on children and the needy, was accompanied by both a tar-covered čert, a pitch-black devil, as well as a bright and glorious andel, an angel of light, who each argued for or against the worthiness of the recipient of the saint’s benefactions. The čert was always ready, at the slightest nod from the saint, to carry away the unworthy beggar or misbehaving child and–throughout the year–parents could always warn their children that they might be carried away by the čert….”

St. Nicholas himself is a Christian figure, the fourth century bishop of Myra. As son of a well-situated family, he started to help poor people who lived in deep poverty. He was supposed to have miraculous vigor and so he became patron of the seamen, children and poor people. (See a previous post about St. Nicholas and his care for the poor here.) In most modern versions of the St. Nicholas story, he is accompanied by a monster or servant (the Dutch describe his assistant as Black Peter) who punishes the bad children while Nicholas himself rewards the well-behaved children.

The figure of the Krampus is based on pre-Christian custom. The Krampusse not only punish the bad children but had the function at one time of driving out the winter devils and blizzard sprites. Originally the custom of the Krampus was spread over all of Austria but was forbidden by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. It was prohibited by death to masquerade as a devil or an evil creature and so this custom only survived in some remote, inaccessible, regions of the Alps from where it slowly spread back across the western parts of Austria again. Today the Krampusse revels are especially popular in Salzburg. As many times as I have been to Salzburg, I have never been there during Krampusse-time; I would dearly love to be there to see the processions and parades of costumed characters in the streets.

St. Nicholas and the Krampus procession in Salzburg (2010); photo by Charlotte Anne Brady.

St. Nicholas and the Krampus procession in Salzburg (2010); photo by Charlotte Anne Brady.

Krampus revels at the Salzburg Christmas Market, 2011; photo by Neumayr/MMV 05.12.2011

Krampus revels at the Salzburg Christmas Market, 2011; photo by Neumayr/MMV 05.12.2011

From Faith to Fantasy: How the Priesthood Shaped My Fiction

Holy Saturday (1991) at St. Mary Magdalen parish in Lampman Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. (photo courtesy of Alexandra Chistyakova LaCombe)

Holy Saturday (1991) at St. Mary Magdalen parish in Lampman Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. (photo courtesy of Alexandra Chistyakova LaCombe)

I served as parish priest for a small Eastern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and at Columbia University for many years. I celebrated services, preached sermons, performed marriages and funerals. I counseled the confused and the despairing, taught those with questions, rejoiced with the joyful. I read. I shared what I had discovered on my own journey. Most importantly, I listened. Most people already knew the answers to their own questions; they just needed someone to help them listen to themselves.

Hopefully, that listening and sharing is reflected in my writing. I listen to the characters and help them to discover who they are and what journeys they are on. I share aspects of myself with each of them and they share themselves with me; if I am quiet and listen, I can share not only their joys and frustrations and despair myself but communicate their experience to my readers.

One aspect of Eastern Orthodoxy that is distinct from other styles of Christianity is the ongoing, living voice of Tradition. This is not simply a blind or rigid adherence to the past. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Democracy says everyone’s voice counts, even if they are stable hands or cowherds. Tradition says that everyone’s voice counts, even if they are dead. We shall not be governed by the oligarchy of those who simply happen to be alive. Some vote with stones, as in ancient Greece. Others vote with tombstones.” In order to do Orthodox theology in a modern context, we must be in dialogue with the great preachers and thinkers of the 4th-5th-6th centuries as much as we are in dialogue with modern thinkers; when wrestling with issues today, it is probably even more important to be in dialogue with the preachers and thinkers of the formative periods of Orthodox thought and practice than with those who simply happen to be our contemporaries.

My novels are shaped by the folklore, legends, and history of the places where they are set: the Baltic States (Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania), Poland, Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), Ireland. My characters interact with those authentic pre-modern beliefs and practices, retelling and reshaping them for modern audiences. I introduce characters to each other that might not have met in their original settings but that have stories and experiences to share with each other. By sharing their experiences, they enrich each other and the readers who can eavesdrop on their conversations or thoughts.

Priesthood is primarily a way of being, of bridge-building. In writing, I try to be my truest self and attempt to build bridges between cultures and histories, practices and experiences, characters and readers.

(This essay first appeared as my guest post on Eve Heart’s blog in September 2016.)

Another photo of Holy Saturday 1991. (photo courtesy of Alexandra Chistyakova LaCombe)

Another photo of Holy Saturday 1991. (photo courtesy of Alexandra Chistyakova LaCombe)

Why Estonia?

The historic old town of Estonia's capital Tallinn is included in Unesco's World Heritage List. (Photo from the BBC.)

The historic old town of Estonia’s capital Tallinn is included in Unesco’s World Heritage List. (Photo from the BBC.)

Estonia? Where is it? Who has even heard of it?! Why set a story there, of all the places that you might possibly set a story?

It just so happens that Estonia, although little known to non-Estonians, has a fascinating although difficult-to-trace heritage of folklore and legends that set it apart from not only its Baltic neighbors (Latvia, Lithuania, Russia) but from almost everywhere else; traditional beliefs and practices survived in Estonia for much longer than in other regions of Europe. These traditional Estonian legends and folklore were primarily handed down via oral tradition until very recently; there were occasional references to Estonian beliefs and stories but no systematic attempt to write collect these and write them down until the 19th century. (The Brothers Grimm made their collection of stories, etc. almost 100 years before that.)

I picked up a book one day about folklore as I was researching another project and found a brief reference to the Estonian version of werewolf folklore: in Estonia, werewolves could fly and would drive away the storms that would otherwise devastate the farms and destroy the crops, resulting in starvation when winter came. They killed storm clouds and ate weather devils, not their neighbors. Because of this, werewolves were heroes, not monsters. I was shocked: Werewolves were the Good Guys?!

Because they were heroes, everyone in a village or district knew who the local werewolf was. It was an honored position. (The only other place that had an even slightly similar version of werewolf folklore is a small Italian region northeast of Venice where the werewolves are called “good walkers” and drive away witches that attempt to destroy the crops.) Estonian werewolves were so unlike their more commonly known cousins in other parts of Europe that it almost seems a shame to characterize them all with the same moniker as “werewolves.”

This distinctly Estonian version of flying heroic werewolf folklore set off fireworks in my imagination! Werewolves as heroes? In a traditional pre-modern, non-ironic culture?! This was too good an opportunity to pass by! I grabbed it and Alexei, my werewolf in 1880s Estonia, was born.

Read more about Alexei’s adventures as a werewolf in Estonia in Storm Wolf.