The holidays went to the goats!
Once upon a time, and it wasn’t that long ago really, the December holiday season was a lot more comfortable with its pagan roots. Paganism sat comfortably side-by-side at the table with emerging Christianity. This blog is specific to countries that have Germanic or Celtic roots. These regions look outward with a Christian face, but pagan traditions are very tightly part of their culture and holiday traditions. (This is true of other countries, but that is broader than what this blog is about.)
In North America, especially in the Victorian era, we have worked diligently at erasing all appearance of paganism in our Christmas tradition. But the truth cannot be erased. The truth is we continue to set a place at the table for Paganism, but we’ve simply forgotten. Even the chosen date for Christmas—because the Bible nowhere states when Jesus was born—is the pagan season of Saturnalia, a Roman festival.
Why am I bringing up Christmas and the December holidays this late into January? Because, according to some traditions, the last day of the season is January 13.
In the Jamie Poole series, there is emphasis on the Celtic days of the year like Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc (Candlemas or St. Brigid’s Day), and Beltane (May Day). Because Jamie is stuck in something of a loop, we haven’t made it to the season of Yule (Christmas) yet, but we’re getting there. In my research, I learned some interesting details, and thought I would share.
For North Americans specifically there is a hard stop between Halloween and Christmas. That’s broken by Thanksgiving in the USA. This is not true with the Germanic peoples and Celts who see the year as a wheel gently turning between seasons. They overlap. The Christmas season begins mid-October with the Álfablót or the Elven sacrifice. This is a Scandinavian sacrifice to the elves towards the end of autumn, when the crops had been harvested and the animals were most fat. Sounds a bit like Samhain, doesn’t it? There are other November holidays, but I want to jump to Krampusnacht December 5/6.
This is when we first see the goat. This blog begins with a goat and will end with a goat.
Forget all about the horror movies Hollywood would show us about the Krampus. (Even the one with William Shatner. Sorry, Bill.) Forget the Victorian postcards of the beast. Even these have simplified and sanitized what the Krampus actually is. I refer to him as the Krampus and not Krampus, because there are literally dozens of these beasties, and I cannot cover all the nuances of each. There are books and books on them.
The truth to the Krampuses is more rich. More colorful.
The Krampus and St. Nicholas are two sides to the same story. The Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure—some might say a goat—in Central and Eastern Alpine folklore. During the Christmas season, s/he scares children who have misbehaved. Assisting Saint Nicholas, the pair visit children on the night of 5 December, with Saint Nicholas rewarding the well-behaved children with modest gifts such as oranges, dried fruit, walnuts and chocolate, while the badly behaved ones only receive punishment from the Krampus with birch rods. Tradition also states St. Nicholas has many Krampuses with him. Victorians, who could be a bit prudish, felt Krampus was a bit too rough and eventually divorced him from the St. Nicholas story. However, it its original form, it was a night that was both scary and fun for children who enjoyed a bit of a fright while getting treats. It was a rite of passage for some to get a knock from a Krampus.
Scary? So why aren’t there witches during the Christmas season? Well, there are. To deviate from goats for a moment, I will promise there are witches. After all, witches are not just for Halloween/Samhain. There are witches for different seasons of the year too!
But the goat!
A goat represents wealth and bounty and good fortune with the harvest. There are other goats represented in the December holidays. The most popular one may be the Yule Goat (his real name is Joulupukki, which can translate Yule Goat or Billy Goat). The goat idea may have originated with Thor’s two goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, from Norse mythology, and which pull Thor's chariot. The Yule Goat as seen today is a straw figure traditionally bound with red ribbons.
Yule, itself, is celebrated over the Winter Solstice (December 21-23). Scholars have connected the original celebrations of Yule to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht ("Mothers' Night"), which is probably more than you want to know. (And don’t think The Witcher came up with the Wild Hunt. Even Jamie Poole incorporates the Wild Hunt in her story arc. It is a very old tradition as well.
The Yule Goat is a representation of celebrating bounty in the darkest days of the year. However, with the Winter Solstice, light is returned to the land, and a promise to the people that planting will begin again. Don’t forget, many of these traditions were begun by people who depended on the land for all their food and a bountiful harvest or the dark days of winter will be truly difficult. To celebrate with a Yule Goat is to find joy in good harvest and good eating.
January 5/6 arrives. For Christians, they call this day Epiphany and consider this the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The original roots of this day are much more colorful. There is a ghost. There is a witch. (I promised a witch. I also promised more goats.) The witch has a couple names. One is Pertcha. She is also often represented as a goat much like a female Krampus. This day in Ireland is also called Women’s Christmas or Little Christmas. For women who have spent so much time ensuring their families have a good holiday season, they hand over chores to their husbands and enjoy some time together.
But there’s still one more goat. And the holiday season isn’t quite over. It really isn’t ever over in that the Wheel of the Year will eventually roll into Candlemas or Imbolc in February…
The last goat is the Nuuttipukki. (Say that five times fast.) He turns up on January 13, as promised. This goat (another Krampus figure) are masked children who, in parts of Finland, travel from house to house. They perform a song and usually get a small reward for it. While this tradition is hundreds of years old, like the other traditions mentioned in this blog, it endures today.
January 13 is also known as St. Knutt’s Day. They are, after all, his goats, Knutt’s goats. An old Scandinavian saying proclaims, “Twentieth-day Knut, drives the Yule out.” People took the saying quite literally. They removed all Christmas decorations, flinging open doors and windows, and sweeping all the dust and debris from their celebrations out of the house on this day. Folk belief also recommended that householders tap the walls with sticks in order to chase out any Christmas ghosts, trolls, or Jultomtem that might be lurking there. In Sweden a man dressed as “Knut” in colorful rags sometimes appeared to help the household “sweep out Christmas.”
January 13 becomes the first day of the year.
And so I hope you pull out your broom and sweep like you mean it.
Jamie Poole will be bringing new books this year. Watch for blogs and announcements on social media for what’s coming!
Until then, keep reading!