Christmas is one of our favorite holidays here at Wisconsin Frights HQ. Second only to Halloween, of course. But while it may not be immediately obvious through the nightmarish commercialization and Christianization of modern Christmas festivities, this holiday is traditionally even creepier and darker than All Hallow’s Eve.
Much like it is in Wisconsin today, winter in ancient times was terrifying. It was cold, nights were long, food was scarce, and many didn’t survive.
So they developed rituals and festivities to keep spirits high and try to make it through to spring.
Here’s a quick and dirty history lesson on the real Christmas.
The earliest roots of Christmas come from the ancient Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, a festival of drunken debauchery honoring the agricultural god Saturn around the winter solstice.
A “Lord of Misrule” – the name comes from later celebrations, but the function was the same – was chosen to preside over the debauchery. (We all probably still have one of these at our own holiday parties.)
Drink, food, and lewdness abound. Participants gave each other gifts, and decorated themselves with holly, the sacred plant of Saturn.
After the formation of the Catholic church, religious leaders struggled to end these rituals and get their pagan asses in the pews. So they proclaimed Saturnalia the birth of Christ and permitted the pagans to continue on with their celebrations…so long as they came to church with money.
Pagans loved trees. Particularly oaks and firs. During the solstice, it was tradition to give your neighbor an oak log to help them stay warm during the Yule festival.
They decorated their homes with the boughs of fir trees.
Mistletoe was sacred to druids because it grew even in the harshest winter months. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was the one weakness of Baldr the Beautiful, and it became a symbol of love in remembrance of him.
Vikings offered up human sacrifices to Odin under oak trees.
Mistletoe was banned by the church for a long time.
In the Victorian era (better remembered for its love of death than its misogyny) men were permitted to kiss any woman unfortunate enough to find herself beneath the mistletoe.
If she refused, she would be cursed with bad luck.
Santa the Necromancer
Saint Nicholas was a real man. He was the bishop of Myra in Turkey during the 4th century. He participated in the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine to determine the church’s official stance on things like if Jesus was truly the divine son of God, if Easter should be celebrated, and which ancient manuscripts to include in the Bible based on their personal ideologies.
During the session, Nicholas was engaged in a argument with another bishop and slapped the man. He was stripped of his robes and spent the night shackled in a jail cell.
In Myra, Nicholas was known for helping families in need.
In one story, he slipped money into the socks of a family who were so desperate they were about to sell their daughters into prostitution.
In another, he magically brought murdered children back to life.
Today, the bones of St. Nicholas reside in a church in Bari, Italy, where they leak an oily substance that is extracted once a year, mixed into holy water, and given out to heal the sick.
Iceland has the mountain-dwelling Christmas witch Grýla, an evil ogre that boils naughty children into her stew.
In Wales, crowds go door to door with the Mari Lwyd – a horse skull on a stick with Christmas baubles in its eye sockets. They sing songs at your doorstep until you let them in to eat your food.
And then there’s the Christmas devil of European Alpine folklore, the monstrous counterpart of St. Nick who punishes the bad kids.
His name is Krampus.
Krampusnacht festivities take place on the night of December 5th, right before the Feast of St. Nicholas, with Krampus parades in which the monstrous creatures with hand-carved wooden masks chase after naughty kids (or adults) to swat them with twigs.
Krampus in Wisconsin
Sure, there are some unique and strange ways to see Santa if you want to make your Christmas a little weirder, but why go all in and hang out with Krampus? Every year, Krampus comes to Milwaukee for the annual Milwaukee Krampusnacht, complete with a Krampus parade, creepy Christmas vendors, music, and many more activities.
Another place to encounter Krampus is Christmas with Krampus at Heart and Soul Tattoo in Sheboygan.
In Madison, you can enjoy the annual Dachsland Krampuslauf, or “Badgerland Krampus Run” on State Street.
You can even have an encounter with Krampus at Old World Wisconsin’s Home for the Holidays.