Who Comes to YOUR House on December 6?

krampus-stuffing-children-into-basket

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

King Tut

Doesn’t everyone recognize the famous funerary mask of King Tut? It was on November 26, 1922, that Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon first went inside the tomb of King Tutankhamen. (Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Creative)

Who doesn’t know about the curse of King Tut that killed everyone who dared disturb his tomb? Or that famous Mummy that hunted down those who disturbed his rest? But how did the Egyptians actually turn bodies into mummies?

I remember one time in the Egyptian Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that a mother was trying to calm a worried or frightened child, “Don’t worry! They took the bodies out of the mummies before they put them on display!” Of course, if that were true there would be no mummy left because removing the body would mean unraveling the bandages and destroy the mummy that we see on display.

The Egyptians thought that the dead would need their bodies in a recognizable form in order to reanimate them in the afterlife. The heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies quickly, often–but not always–creating lifelike and natural ‘mummies’ for the poor. But the wealthy wanted more care taken to preserve their bodies in order to be sure that they would actually have a usable mummy when they needed it.

Anubis was the jackal headed god of the dead–we have all seen the representations of Anubis in the movies about mummies. He was closely associated with mummification and embalming, so the chief priest/embalming overseer wore a mask of Anubis.

The priests would first insert a hook through a hole near the nose and pull out part of the brain because it and the other internal organs would rot and might prevent proper mummification. They would also make a cut on the left side of the body near the stomach and remove all the other internal organs as well. Once dried out, the lungs, intestines, stomach, and liver would be preserved each in their own canopic jar, apart from the mummy itself. The heart itself would be placed back inside the corpse.

Then they would rinse inside of body with wine and spices and cover the corpse with natron (salt) for 70 days. Halfway through this process, around the 40-day mark, they would stuff the body with linen or sand to give it a more human shape and at the end of the 70 days they would wrap the body from head to toe in bandages. That’s the mummy we see today, all wrapped up in strips of bandages.

Of course, the traditional “swaddling clothes” or “swaddling bands” that babies were wrapped in were very similar to the bandages that would be used to wrap up a mummy so the images of babies in ancient or medieval art often look very similar to mummies as well. Except that the baby’s face is not covered! (Medieval Christian art often depicted a person’s soul as one of these “mummified” babies.)

Dracula!

The novel “Dracula” (by Bram Stoker, who was born Nov. 8, 1847) was fairly well-regarded at its publication but not wildly popular. Yet is has become one of the west well-known stories ever told.

Dracula, the creation of Bram Stoker (whose 170th birthday is this week), is perhaps one of the most famous characters ever created. He stalks our nightmares as well as our television and movie screens. He fills our bookcases. We spend days at conferences talking about him. He read about him, over and over and over again.

Of course, one reason he became so popular was the way he was portrayed by Bela Lugosi in the movie: “Lugosi possessed all the menace of Stoker’s Dracula but he added a curious charisma. While not traditionally handsome, Lugosi combined an intense screen presence with a deliberate, heavily accented speech to create a Dracula who was almost as mesmerizing as he was repellent. Indeed, he so thoroughly captured this aura of entrancing danger that it has since become difficult to remember Stoker’s original figure, who possesses little of this charm.” (For more about this, click here. Or here.)

Another reason Dracula is so popular is that he can stand in for whatever most terrifies society: he is the dead body who will not stay dead, that comes back to hunt the living; he is the old lord of feudal society stalking the capitalists who have taken control; he is the dark foreigner and immigrant who invades well-do-do white society; he is the personification of disease and epidemic that sweeps across the countryside. He is madness and mental illness that strikes without warning. (Dr. Frankenstein‘s monster has also been a cipher for societal fears over the years as well.)

Whether he is a villain or an anti-hero, Dracula will be with us forever!