Tuesday, December 10, 2013
(Originally published on The Travel Channel)
Move over, Halloween, because with all its ghosts, goblins, sorcery and cryptids, Christmas is the ultimate supernatural season. Belief is mainstream at Christmastime, when skepticism is considered crass and the ambient magic of the season can infect even diehard humbugs. Religious observances aside, Aaron Sagers picks the best paranormal phenomena from folklore and pop culture that stuff our stockings each December.
aka Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Kris Kringle
This immortal elfen being has the power to manipulate time and space and leads a cadre of other elf minions who watch children and visit them while they sleep. An amalgam of the 4th-century Greek Christian Saint Nicholas of Myra and the Norse god Odin, Santa is a jolly home invader who can slip down chimneys to give gifts to the “nice.” Claus’ existence is supported by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which has tracked his journey on radar since 1955.
A companion of Santa’s, the Krampus is a hairy goat-like demon with horns and cloven hooves who punishes the “naughty” children. Emerging from pre-Christian Germanic folklore, he is sort of an anti-Claus that carries chains, sticks or whips to beat children with, and he may dish out coal, depending on the culture. But if he’s in a bad mood, he’ll stuff children in his sack or bathtub, and carry them to hell for cooking. Krampus night is typically celebrated Dec. 5 in Europe, where people celebrate by dressing as the beast and roam the streets drinking schnapps.
Based on late 19th-century contributions by cartoonist Thomas Nast and poet George P. Webster -- and seemingly supported by the NORAD Santa Tracker -- we believe Claus lives on a hidden landmass in the icy waters of the Terrestrial North Pole in the Arctic Ocean. Sort of like Atlantis, but with a toy workshop, the North Pole is also home to the icy giant Hyperboreans of Greek myths. The exact location of Santa’s home isn’t known but a recent pop-culture contribution from the movie Elf suggests it is in close proximity to 7 levels of a Candy Cane forest, near a sea of swirly-twirly gum drops, and apparently not far from the Lincoln Tunnel.
Another hidden city with a Christmas connection is Whoville. Talk begins anew each holiday season about the species of roast-beast-eating “Whos” -- discovered by the renowned Dr. Seuss in 1957 -- terrorized by a green, cave-dwelling, bipedal humanoid that resides on Mt. Crumpit. The so-called “Grinch” domesticates dogs, and under the right circumstances, it possesses the physiological ability to grow its heart by three sizes.
aka Zwarte Piet
A character who accompanies Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, Black Peter joins the jolly man on a boat from Spain (where they live instead of in the North Pole) and assists in distributing goodies to nice children. Peter has alternately been a conquered devil forced to help Santa, a Moorish slave and a soot-covered chimney sweep. He will punish bad children, but is not normally as mean as the Krampus -- although he also has a bag for stealing kids for transport back to Spain.
Santa travels the globe in a sleigh led by supposedly immortal flying reindeer, which have evolved in the North Pole. At least one of these cryptozoological wonders possesses a bio-luminescent red nose. According to a story by Robert L. May in 1939, and sung about by Gene Autry in 1949, the reindeer adaptation allows survival in the hidden landmass’ foggy Christmas Eves.
A goblin of Greek legend, these monsters live underground until Christmas day, where they can then emerge and stir up mischief until returning Jan. 6. Unless a home is protected -- with a basil sprig, wooden cross and bowl of water -- the creatures will swarm, wreaking havoc. Connected to vampire and werewolf lore, they can appear half-beast and half-human with glowing red eyes. Some men, especially those born at Christmas, can transform into Kallikantzaroi.
It was discovered in the 1964 stop-motion animation TV special, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" that the flying reindeer have socialized with a fellow cryptid, the Bumble, a yeti-like creature known as the Abominable Snow Monster of the North. The large, white Bumble has the ability to bounce, but is prone to sinking. The creature is also apparently enraged by glowing red noses and all things connected to Christmas -- but legend has it that it can be domestic by removing its teeth.
A certain level of sorcery is at play during Christmas, where -- according to a 1950 musical account sung by Gene Autry -- snowmen are reanimated due to potentially-possessed items such as a felt hat. The snowmen can also grow legs to assist with walking through traffic stops. At least one incarnation of the magic snowman, which appeared at the North Pole along with the red-nosed reindeer in 1964, prefers to offer moral guidance and sing about silver and/or gold deposits, and holly/jolly Christmases.
The holiday witch of Italy, Befana delivers gifts to good children on Epiphany Eve -- the night before The Three Wisemen were said to arrive at Baby Jesus’ manger. The stories of Befana vary, but she is an old woman who encountered the Wisemen and turned down an invitation to join them on their quest because she was too busy sweeping. She has a change of heart, and tries to find Jesus, but is never able to. Now she travels on a broom, still searching, and visiting children in the meanwhile.
During Christmas, ghosts and entities conspire to teach important lessons to the morally bankrupt. As Charles Dickens detailed in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the spirit of a doomed business partner might appear, followed by a shapeshifting being with a flame as its head. This androgynous spirit will transport a “Scrooge” into the past, while a jolly giant with a green robe teleports the individual through present events. Finally, a foreboding Grim Reaper of a future yet-to-come zips into the future, and portends of misery and death. Dickens also dabbled with moralistic Christmas goblins and ghosts in other tales, such as The Chimes and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. At least one other story featured an inter-dimensional angel who slipped a man into a parallel 1946 to show him a world where he doesn’t exist, and that he had a wonderful life.