So the German tradition of krampus, ah, was brought to Sweden some times during the Dark Ages…and back then, this was before like, Santa Claus came around. And he was only like Saint Nick, or a similar…like before he was actually Santa Claus he was like this Saint guy, right, that was giving gifts away. And the Christmas bok, Julbocken, would accompany him and if you hadn’t been a good child, he would put you in his sack, that he brought with him, and beat you. Uh, and if you’d been really bad he would put you in his sack and take you away. From your family. And how this was celebrated was basically, young University students, would go around to houses, carol singing. Wearing all these, the outfit of the bok – it’s a Swedish word. It’s basically like a goat head with horns. And they were mischievous. So it’s like a mixture of trick-or-treating and carol-singing, into one. And this would be used to threaten children to behave. And that lived for like, forever. Long time.
Is it still going on?
No. Because it’s sort of…that tradition of going around, sort of died off when Santa Claus came around. Basically Santa Claus was different, in Sweden, until Coca-Cola came to Sweden. And then all of a sudden Santa Claus was red. Before that he wasn’t. And Santa Claus…I’ll get back to that thought. The Christmas bok is now, under the Christmas tree you have one out of…what is the uh, horses eat?
Hay. Yeah, out of hay, it’s like a figurine made out of hay, that you put under your Christmas tree, as a like a, oh he’s already been here. Because they would leave that, after the visit.
Oh, he would leave a little figurine?
The University students?
Yeah. And usually they got served alcohol, you know, that’s why they were going around. And if you didn’t, then you know, they would do something mischievous.
And the first Santa Clauses weren’t actually Santa Clauses as the way we think of it, basically they were gnomes that cared for the farmhouse. They cared for the whole plot of land where they lived. So they lived under the houses, and they would take care of that. And that was sort of like their gift to, to the people inside. And every year you would have to put out a bowl of oatmeal, outside. Almost like cookies and milk, but a poor version, and outside. So they would continue taking care of the farm. Most of the Swedish stuff has to do with nature. So the gnomes, they were friendly, taking care, making sure that plants grew, all that stuff. And they would come together, for a time period before Santa Claus became Coca-Cola-ized, the Christmas bok and Santa Claus would come together, and Santa Claus would give the good children gifts, and the bok would give them beatings. So they both have sacks – one is empty and one is full of gifts! Cause if you’ve been bad…you end up in the sack and get beaten.
So there was one Santa Claus? Or every house had their own?
No every house had their own, yeah. Houses weren’t close to each other, cause we didn’t have cities obviously, so it was more like a big farm. And each farm had their own, so each little village had several. Yeah. So each plot of land that you owned had their own little gnome taking care of it.
There’s a lot of mythology used to keep children at bay. For instance, in the wintertime, if you go outside the wolf’s gonna eat you.
Did your mom ever tell you that?
Uh, not me. But her generation. Because when I grew up, we were modernized in cities. So I’m too young to have that sort of thing. But if you go back, like at the turn of the century, that was definitely going around. Like that was the way to keep children in. So you had: don’t go into the forest at wintertime, cause the wolf will catch you and eat you; don’t go out in the summertime cause the trolls will take you…and they would trade you for a troll kid. So basically if your kid was misbehaving, it was thought that your actual kid had been taken by trolls, and they had left a troll kid. If you went down to the lake or the spring, the Naked Man would take you.
Naked Man? What’s that?
Naked Man…he plays his violin. Beautifully. So beautifully that you cant withstand it, so you have to walk closer and closer and closer, and once you’re close enough he’ll grab you and pull you into the stream and you’ll drown and die. He’s a naked man, yeah. And his name is, like…Naked Man. Näcken. That’s his name. So that’s sort of like the Elements protection.
The above traditions and folk beliefs function not only as lower mythology, for example every household having it’s own spirit or small deity looking after the house and harvest, but also as a way to make children behave and stay out of harm’s way. The rituals and practices of the University students going around to the houses, as well as the figurine, reinforces the threat of the Christmas bok. In addition, the participation of the University students allows them to be involved after their belief in such stories and characters has passed, and they in turn get to have their fun and mischief and alcohol, a part of the transition between being a child who believes these stories but before they have children of their own. As the informant pointed out, these traditions are fading out, mainly because of the urbanization of Sweden – families no longer have their own large plot of land, and instead people live in cities.
Primary Language: English
Other language(s): Polish
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Performance Date: April 22, 2013
My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about some of the similarities and differences between the ways that Christmas is celebrated in America versus in Poland. This is his account:
“In Poland, little kids are told that Santa Claus comes in early December. On the 6th, you come home form school. And there are gifts under your pillow. I don’t know why Santa puts gifts under your pillow, but he does. So they’ll be like, chocolates or little toys. Like small-scale gifts, like Pokemon cards or a Gameboy game. And the Polish tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. These are the gifts from family members, not Santa. And then we would sing Polish carols and stuff. Some of them are the same as English songs, but just in polish, like it’ll be “Jingle Bells” sung in Polish.”
Analysis: My informant’s broad descriptions of some of the differences between Polish and American Christmases seem to indicate that many of our traditions are the same. Some noticeable changes are that Santa visited my informant’s family on December 6th, whereas December 24th is his usual visitation date in the United States. My informant also mentioned that he didn’t understand why Santa put gifts under his pillow—instead of in stockings, as is common in the U.S.—but to me, stockings seem stranger than under pillows. This is one example of how certain traditions can develop seemingly arbitrarily; placing presents under pillows did not really make sense to my informant, but his family did it ever year, and putting presents in stockings seems somewhat silly to me, but my family keeps this tradition alive. Despite the lack of concrete explanations for these habits, they still certainly have meaning. Christmas in particular is especially ritualized because of its religious and cultural significance. And although these rituals may differ from Poland to the United States, the fact that citizens from both nations make efforts to sanctify this holiday show that these cultures both see Christmas as an important holiday. This common ground seems more significant to me than the specific differences in how it is celebrated; essentially, Christmas is a unifying celebration for multiple cultures.
Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries. I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January. I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January. Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event. So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”
Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”
Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff. And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving. And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children. Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges. And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”
Interviewer: “Why red?”
Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”
Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”
Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”
Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus. Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children. In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition. Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.
In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research. Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite. The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right. This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’. During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner. She said she had never heard of the Krampus before. I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right. The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.
In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season. In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts. I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th. However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.
My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany. She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree. She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.