Do you want to know what Santa keeps in his sack? Not presents; he keeps those in the back of the sleigh. No, that child-shaped sack on his back serves a much more sinister purpose...
Caution: If you're happy in your belief that Santa is a jovial fellow who would never hurt a hair on your head, look away now. This exposÃ© reveals Saint Nick's darker past, and may make you think twice before hoping he sneaks into your bedroom on Christmas Eve. You have been warned.
As a child, I used to set traps for Father Christmas. I suppose I've always been something of a skeptic, and figured that successfully capturing Santa (with my ball of string tied to carefully-laid-out Micro Machines) would constitute pretty good proof of his existence.
Unfortunately Santa is a sneaky devil and always managed to skilfully avoid my traps, which only furthered my curiosity. Who was this mystical fat man who eluded traps and burglar alarms? How did he know where I lived? And was it not awfully dangerous to jump arse-first into a fireplace during the coldest month of the year?
The more I pondered the conundrum that was Santa Claus, the more the story I had been taught just didn't make sense...
You must leave a giant sock for Santa to put gifts in
Why a giant sock? Sure, it's better than a regular size sock, but it's still remarkably stupid. Why not just leave a box or something?
Santa brings bad children coal
Being Welsh, you should all know what an important resource coal is: it provides energy and warmth, two things which are particularly valuable in Winter. Charcoal is also my favourite medium for drawing, and I have quite a few boxes of it. So what if I'm cold or want to draw something – do I have to be bad? Coal just seems a very unusual thing to receive as a punishment. If I were Santa I'd leave a dog turd in your stocking.
How does he define 'naughty' and 'nice' children?
Morality isn't always a black-and-white subject. Imagine you were walking past a train track and saw a doctor (who gives to charity, works in Casualty and saves lives daily) has been tied to the tracks and a train is hurtling towards him. You reach the track-changing-switch-thingy in time to divert the train and save him, but on the other track are ten convicted criminals who have escaped from jail. Do you sacrifice the criminals to save the doctor, or do you let the doctor die and the convicts escape back into society? It's a moral dilemma. I would like to know precisely how Santa would judge the 'naughty' and 'nice' outcomes of such a scenario.
Seriously, what the hell? I've seen Lord of the Rings and find it very difficult to picture Legolas sat in an igloo building toys. Hobbits, maybe, but definitely not elves.
I was suspicious of the origins of the Santa story, as things just didn't add up for me. So I did some research to see if I could make sense of it all, and what I found was shocking. If you are a fan of elves and happy endings, stop reading now! The truth about Santa and his minions is about to get a lot darker...
My research first took me to the Netherlands in the late 19th Century, where I read about a man called Sinterklaas who looked a lot like Santa, only he was skinny and dressed more like an archbishop. He'd been around for some time, but it wasn't until 1845 that he decided he needed some staff, so purchased an African slave boy called Peter. He found that slaves made his life a lot easier, and by the 1900s had purchased a whole bunch of them. To keep things simple he gave them all the same name: Zwarte Pieten, which translates as "Black Pete".
Yup, Santa had slaves. He also used to be thin. But that's just scratching the surface.
Intrigued by how "slaves" had become "elves", and suspecting some careful censoring had been applied to the original story, I dug deeper into Santa's murky past.
Get this: according to Icelandic lore, Santa's parents were ogres called Gryla and Leppalud. Back in the 13th Century they gave birth to 13 mischievous children (one of whom was presumably Santa). Santa's siblings included Hurdaskellir (aka 'The Door Slammer'), Pottasleikir ('The Pot Licker'), 'The Window Peeper', 'The Sausage Snatcher', 'The Doorway Sniffer' and a number of other wild children. Wow.
All 13 offspring would eventually give gifts to deserving boys and girls, but only after a fortnight of inflicting mischief and mayhem on them. And the bad children? They would be kidnapped and fed to Santa's ogre parents.
So Santa was a petty criminal who occasionally aided in kidnapping unruly children and feeding them to his parents, who were OGRES.
But we can't blame him for having a rough childhood and weird parents. Surely the story gets better? ...Right??
Well I followed his trail to Greece, where he and his mischievous ogre spawn are known as the Kalikantzari and are notorious for climbing down people's chimneys and urinating on their fires. The charming image of old Saint Nick had all but vanished from my mind. But then the trail went dark: researching the Christmas legends of other countries brought up the same old stories about a man on a flying animal (usually either a horse or a pack of reindeer) delivering presents. I started to think that Santa must have distanced himself from his mischievous brothers and murderous parents and set out to make amends by bringing joy and happiness to the world, and started to warm to the guy again. I stopped researching Santa's back story and turned my attention to my aforementioned conundrum about giant socks and coal.
And that's how I learnt about Krampus.
Before the elves. Before the slaves. There was Krampus.
Krampus is Father Christmas's pet demon. No, I'm not making this up. Follow the links if you don't believe me.
"Krampus is a bound devil who escorts the benevolent Saint Nikolo on the eve of his day. Nikolo tests the children with their Catechism and good behaviour. If they pass he gives gifts and treats. If they fail, Krampus is set loose to deal with these bad children; worse than lumps of coal & rotten potatoes, he may also use a switch of twigs to beat them and assaults the bad children in other ways... giving them a taste of Hell to come."
According to Austrian folklore, Saint Nicholas decides whether children are 'naughty' or 'nice' by turning up at their door and testing them. And he brings his demon along in case they fail the test.
"[Saint Nick] pronounced judgement on the children, tested them on their catechism and rewarded their performance either with a gift or with punishment from his lackey, Krampus. In some of the Ruprecht traditions the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Santa that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats. Those who performed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into a sack and taken away to be tossed into a river."
So that's what Santa's sack is for: drowning children! But what's the deal with the stockings? Where do they come in?
"On the eve of Saint Nikolo's Day children are put to bed and warned of their peril. They may avoid a direct visit by leaving shoes outside the door. If they sleep soundly, they will not have to deal with the test, and in the morning of St Nikolo's Day they will find either treats & small gifts in their shoes, or a switch (sticks used to beat someone), lump of coal, or rotten potatoes. Parents are expected to use the switch on those children so designated as having been really bad."
So there you have it: Santa was an unruly juvenile delinquent born to murderous monsters. He doesn't keep elves; he keeps slaves. And if you're not good at dancing he'll pee in your fireplace and get his pet demon to throw you in a sack and hurl you in a river. (Suddenly The Night Before Christmas seems really boring...)
Who's looking forward to a visit from him this Christmas?
David Sedaris: Six To Eight Black Men (Fans of creative writing must check out this short, non-fiction piece about David Sedaris discovering how different cultures tell different stories about Santa)
Martin S Pribble: Why Teach Kids Only Half The Story About Christmas?
The New York Times: Have A Very Scary Christmas