Monthly Archives: December 2013

Anti-Santa makes a comeback

Say hello to Krampus

225px-Krampus_at_Perchtenlauf_KlagenfurtMy mother Face-Timed me yesterday, rather upset, to say she had received a “very disturbing” Christmas card from my sister. It showed a sleigh and children but instead of Santa there was a jet-black, horned and cloven-hoofed demon driving. Pictured with a red tongue that would put Gene Simmons of KISS to shame, the creature was stuffing a frightened boy into a wicker basket. Turns out this was a Wilhelmine-era German Christmas card showing Saint Nicholas’s seldom-seen other half, Krampus. In Central European Christmas mythology,  old Saint Nick was always a double act: he would reward good children with sweets and toys while the bad kids got a visit from Krampus instead and a lump of coal. If you were really bad, Krampus would take you on a one-way trip to Krampusland. Great parental leveraging tool.

225px-Gruss_vom_KrampusI should have known this tradition having been married to a German woman for many years but strangely didn’t. However, Krampus celebrations are not universal in Germany, having started in the Alpine regions and then spreading into Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, St. Nicholas’s “helper” is “Black Peter”, usually portrayed as a man in blackface makeup. In recent years, some have called for Black Peter to be cut from parades because of perceived racist overtones. But the southern tradition of the hairy, horned demonic creature who accompanies St. Nick on his travels actually predates Christianity as he was once part of pagan winter rituals. It was most probably grafted onto Christmas when that festival displaced Yule in early medieval times. For most of the 20th century, civic and church authorities had repressed this ancient tradition, and in many places, St. Nick lost the flip side of his coin. But that is beginning to change and Krampus celebrations are having a bit of a comeback in southern Germany. After I decided to blog about this, I saw that the Guardian ran a short piece on the same subject yesterday. They put the resurgence of Krampus down to a societal reflex against the commercialization of Christmas and all the saccharine trimmings that accompany it. Sort of getting back to one’s roots really.krampus kidCostumed performers are now popping up everywhere (including some big US cities) during the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, prancing through the streets and frightening the bejeezus out of little kids. Sweet. I think I’m a bit envious the tradition wasn’t around for me when I was a kid. Beats the hell out of Rudolph and his red nose.

 

 

The “Protectorate” declared in London 360 years ago this week:

England’s short-lived republic was bold, imperfect, novel and short-lived but we’re still debating the same issues today

oc2Well, folks, it’s history time and this week is the 360th anniversary of the founding of the Protectorate government in a unified Commonwealth Britain under Oliver Cromwell. “So what?” you may well ask given that a fair few years have passed since then. But I would argue it’s worth stopping to think about this very unusual period in British history and the echoes of it we hear today.

The action in my novel Gideon’s Angel takes place in the months leading up to Cromwell’s effective “kingship” in December 1653. The book revolves around two plots to assassinate him before the Protectorate is established, one Royalist and one infernal. And amongst all the action and swashbuckling, incantations and demon-summoning, there are some interesting themes about who is good and who is bad. I paint Cromwell as a sympathetic figure, a man trying to square an impossible political circle in the ashes of a horrific civil war. He polarized opinion in his own time and continues to do so in ours. And he has received rather a bad rap in our collective memory not least for the brutality of the campaign he waged to subdue Ireland. Yet the Protectorate that he and the few men in his inner circle forged, was a system of government way ahead of its time and one that later influenced the men of the Enlightenment both in Europe and North America.

To quote the website of the Cromwell Association: “Firstly, the Cromwellian Protectorate was the first truly British government in our history, the first to lay serious claim to rule over and to pull together the disparate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Secondly, the Protectorate was the first and so far the last government in our history to be empowered and to operate according to the terms of a detailed written constitution.”

We in the UK are still arguing about the need for a written constitution today, and the need for a reformed (or abolished) House of Lords, or a state church. The Protectorate only lasted a few years and much of what it established was undone in the Stuart Restoration. And it disappointed those true republicans who thought that it was a monarchy in all but name (It was briefly debated that Cromwell ought to become King Oliver but he chose “Lord Protector” instead). But it was a novel experiment in modern government and for all its faults, not a bad effort compared to what had gone before or even what came after.

Again, to quote the Cromwell Association: “The new regime generally held true to the path Cromwell set for it in December 1653 – “to act for God and the peace and good of the Nation, and particularly…to consider and relieve the distress of the poor and oppressed. We should remember and commemorate it.”

Not everyone will agree with that sentiment but Cromwell and the Protectorate are part and parcel of our history and the ripples from that political experiment can still be felt.