By Christina Lay
I’ve been attempting to absorb the Czech language while expending little-to-no effort. One of my low-impact methods is to subscribe to a Czech word a day via email. This over-enthusiastic service recently sent me a bonus of fourteen words associated with St. Nicholas Day. I’d been trying to remember how to say Merry Christmas in Czech, so I clicked the link.
The first word on the list was fear (bát se). I double-checked the title of the article. Yup. St. Nick’s Day. The second was coal (uhlí). No surprise there. But those were followed by: devil (čert), annoy (zlobit), haunted (Strašidelný) and sack (pytel). The sack, by the way, isn’t for bringing gifts but for carrying away naughty children and it’s wielded by the devil, the Czech version of Krampus, St. Nicholas’ demon companion.
The obvious question inspired by this rather negative list is this: When did we decide Christmas was not a time to terrorize children into behaving? What good is the whole naughty or nice categorization if no one really worries about being left a lump of coal? Why did jolly replace vengeful?
I get the sense Europeans are a tad more earnest about preserving their myths than we are in the states. I remember a big book of Fairy Tales my Czech grandmother sent us when we were little. These were old German folk tales and the lessons were clear. Anyone who misbehaved, or even thought about misbehaving, suffered immediate consequences. If you told a lie, for instance, a scissor-wielding imp might snip off the end of your nose. I still vividly recall the illustration depicting bright blood droplets spurting from the victims’ surprised faces.
Another picture seared into my mind is that of a little girl tarred and feathered. She looked so sad. I can’t remember her crime. I think it had something to do with vanity, or maybe laziness.
I’m not sure whether the emasculation of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus is good or bad as far as raising emotionally healthy children goes, but I feel a certain loss. I admit, as I child I was disturbed by those illustrations. It all seemed rather excessive to me, but those hard-edged fantasies stuck with me while the soft and squishy stories faded to a pastel wash of smiling inanity. The cruelty of the punishment in those old folk tales actually led me to question the wisdom of authority figures, and even God. Not the intended effect, I’m sure, but the point is those stories engaged me and made me think.
Several of us here on ShadowSpinners have spoken on the need, the benefits, and the desire for horror in our art. Are we robbing children of some essential element when we sanitize the stories and the myths they hear? Or is it simply that we’ve evolved in our child rearing? The stories that emerged from haunted places like the Black Forest – ancient, creepy, frightening stories – do they still serve a purpose, or are they archaic tales of unfair retribution designed to control and inhibit, safe only for emotionally mature adults?
The Santa who spies on you all year long, who watches you while you sleep, who tallies your wrongs and passes judgment- does he have a role in today’s sugarplum encrusted, flashing neon holiday?
I’m not arguing pro or con as I can see both sides. Santa as the Dark Man waiting to punish, I can live without. But St. Nicolas as the bringer of mystery, thrills, danger and excitement into the too bright, too removed from religion or meaning celebration Christmas is threatening to become, that guy I kind of miss.
As a spinner of the occasional dark tale, I mourn the loss of shadows. As a modern feminist, I celebrate the passing of control via violent threats. Either way, I can’t hear the song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” without imagining Vincent Price crooning the lyrics in a Dracula-esque style. Can’t you hear it?
You better watch out, you better not cry. Better not pout I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming….bwaahahaha.
Veséle Vánoce. And be good, for goodness sake.