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The Skeletons in Santa's Closet

If visions of sugarplums give you a toothache, gather 'round the Yule log for these spooky stories of
Santa's shadow side. The dark side of the Claus is as rich and complex as one of Vosges founder Katrina Markoff's dark chocolate exotic truffles (hint hint to anyone wondering what to put in my stocking this year), filled with gooey, melting, folkloric mystery. Or perhaps I could say that Santa's past is as dark and spicy as one of Katrina's Catrina pops--chocolate "sugar skulls" on sticks created in homage to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Also great stocking stuffers.

It may be an unfortunate coincidence that "Old Saint Nick" sounds so very like "Old Nick," but it turns out that it was no great leap for Tim Burton to meld Halloween and Christmas in his (now vintage) holiday film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Santa Claus (or should we call him Sandy Claws?) is, after all, a refined sugar derivation of many sanguine veins of myth flowing from pagan holiday lore spanning fall and midwinter celebrations of death and rebirth, injected with the dichotomous worldview of Christianity and processed through the machine of American capitalism. From spirits of the dead and deities of rebirth chasing across the sky, meting out whimsical forms of justice upon the people below, came a jolly old soul pulled by jingling reindeer, spreading store-bought cheer to all, accepting offerings of milk and cookies in lieu of blood sacrifices.

In Europe, where pagan myths still live and grow directly from their ancient roots, the demonic side of Christmas lives on in a collection of monsters from the hokey to the horrific. The figure of Santa Claus has a broad, diverse ancestry that includes ancient goddesses Hertha and Freya, ancient gods Odin and Thor, the historic person of the Greek Saint Nicholas, and various animist spirits of nature. Much like the way the New Testament's birth narratives of Jesus are derived from Greek mystery cult birth narratives of gods, which are likely related to Scandinavian midwinter legends of the salvation-bringing self-rebirth of the Sun Goddess, the Christian figure of Santa Claus is derived from folk traditions of the same ancient peoples.

In the United States, Santa Claus became refined by popular tradition and commercial engineering (such as the powerful influences of Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward) into a symbol of Disney-style pure redemption, unconditional love, and wish fulfillment embodied as materialistic gratification. It is still popularly accepted that the patriarchal, old-man-Godlike figure of Santa sits on judgment from an omniscient position on high and keeps two cut-and-dried Nice and Naughty lists for Judgment Day--er, Christmas--but nobody ever gets coal in their stocking anymore. The Naughty List is more of a ho-ho-hokey empty threat, and the creepy aspects of Santa keep getting teased out over time. Now the stalking has been delegated to Elves on our Shelves, and every child expects to receive a prize at the end of the night, regardless of success at good behavior.

But this isn't the whole picture elsewhere in the world. I have a hunch that as Christianity spread throughout Europe and absorbed tribal myths, the strongly dichotomous worldview of good vs. evil, total and infinite damnation vs. total and infinite salvation, pitted the saccharine spirit of Santa against the murky complexity of pagan thinking, drawing all the sweet sap into Santa while exaggerating the horror and darkness of other traditions.

For example, one of Santa's forebears is most certainly the heroic protector of goodness Thor, who was sometimes represented by a goat. There are now various goat-related Santa figures in European folk traditions, but the best-known is Krampus, whose name means "Claws" (seriously; no etymological relation to "Claus"), and who appears as a demonic, goat-headed incubus who ravages the populace, mass raping, whipping young ladies, kidnapping babies, and torturing naughty children. Sometimes he rides on a witchy broom, and sometimes he rides in Santa's sleigh--now separated out from Santa like a split personality, working as one variant of European Santa's punisher-sidekicks. Now Santa can play good cop and only give out presents, keeping his velvety, fur-lined gloves clean of coal. And blood.

Krampus and his grotesque mythological cousins are found in many nations, some in blackface and some bearing weapons, some merely pranksters and some far worse. Austrian settlers in Mexico believe that Santa Muerte, bone-chilling patroness of the criminal and desperate, flew to the Americas as the wife of Krampus. Like Santa Claus, Santa Muerte is a character dreamed up by Christians (possibly by forced converts) who hovers outside the officially accepted lineup of saints. Like Santa, she has variants and mythic cousins. A popular figure in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations is Catrina, a lady skeleton dressed in finery. Catrina, however, is an often flirtatious, often cheeky character who fits the festive, jovial, nostalgic mood of Day of the Dead folk traditions, which give comfort to those mourning loved ones in the ultimately life-sustaining cycle of life and death.

Santa Muerte herself is something different, something hopeless and nihilistic. Her cult grows in times of violent conflict and degradation. She is venerated by the desperately poor and irredeemably criminal. She is the guardian of children who have disappeared. In return for offerings of money, wild promises, and cigarettes, she grants wishes that no one dares ask of a true Christian saint. Her favors tend to fall under three categories: protection from evil forces, money, and love. But not the Jesus-loves-the-little-children kind of love. We're talking Aphrodite-style, coercive possession--lust, infatuation, obsession.

This Vice article on Santa Muerte says that she "came out of the closet"--quite literally from hidden places inside private home closet shrines--in 2001, but that is probably just when she started to take off in United States counterculture. According to my friends living in the central Mexican highlands, Santa Muerte had been hanging out comfortably in a busy public marketplace for many years before I met her in 2007. It required a long trek through a stretch of winding, claustrophobic, heavily aromatic corridors that twisted and turned back on themselves like a giant gut to find the stall with Santa Muerte, so she was still a slight challenge to find at that time. But we rounded a corner, and there she was, set up in plain sight, large as life at the front of an herb stall.

As soon as I saw the statue, my throat closed shut, and I had trouble breathing. I'd like to think it was from demonic forces, which would be super metal, but the reality that I suspect is even creepier. The dried leaves, powders, and shriveled specimens arrayed around her gave off an alarming stench. Considering that Santa Muerte is the kind of girl you go to when you need an abortion, a love drug (example: powdered cockroaches or snake rattle), or a convenient death (yours or someone else's), I can only guess at what residues and gruesome dusts my lungs were protesting at that moment.

The thing that chilled me most, though, was that she was covered from head to hem in American one-dollar bills, affixed haphazardly to her robe and fluttering just slightly with a dry, papery whisper. She made me think of an illustration of the Grimm tale Fitcher's Bird, of a skeleton propped in a window, dressed in wedding veils and flowers. Except instead of a wedding veil... American ones. Like a fleshless dive bar stripper.

A few years later, I would find a statue of Saint Christopher (another unofficial saint) in a Roman church, also covered in scraps of paper. Saint Christopher, too, is thought to protect little children. The bits of paper had prayers written on them, requests for a child to be well. It made me think of Santa Muerte and threw her into stark relief.

A prayer versus a deal with the devil. The difference between an investment and a jailhouse bribe.

So needless to say, Santa Muerte is some terrifying company for Santa Claus to keep. And the Austrians' belief that she is the wife of Krampus may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Although the origins of Santa Muerte remain unclear, and almost nothing is known of her cult before the 1960s, she likely has roots in much older traditions. Some believe her cult may be one of the many bastard offshoots of the Spanish conquest, a combination of indigenous traditions, coerced Catholic doctrine, and the horrors of colonization spawning a counter-cultural nightmare. The same is probably true of La Llorona, a figure with Hellenistic echoes, native features, and the flavor of desperate loss.

As far as a female character traversing the Christmastime sky, doling out prizes and punishments to children, there are many examples throughout Europe of Christmastime witches or witch-like figures on broomsticks, sometimes ugly, usually benevolent, but varied in appearance and creepiness.

Both Germany and Italy are home to Epiphany witches (Frau Perchta and La Befana) who fly through the sky on their broomsticks, dropping treats for good children and coal for bad. Scandinavian and German sources describe Frau Holle, an old woman spirit who doles out the seasonal just deserts.

I first saw La Befana in 2003 in a Roman marketplace, where my Spanish classmate explained that she was not, as some of us first thought, a late Halloween decoration but an early Three Kings Day doll. Ironically, the Spanish, she has explained to me, are too Catholic to maintain such pagan traditions in their Christmas celebrations, and yet the Romans carry on right under the nose of the Pope...

...who is probably just relieved that the Italians are not running around drunk in goat heads, whipping young women and terrorizing children in honor of Krampus.

Oh, you better watch out
You better not cry
You better not shout
I'm telling you why...

Sweet dreams, everyone!

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