Winter festivals

Winter  festivals

Most Pagans celebrate Midwinter in accordance with the secular traditions popular throughout the Western world including decorating trees, indoors and out, giving to charities, gathering, feasting and exchanging gifts with friends and family, baking, singing and drinking.

The more spiritual aspects of the holiday vary by tradition but may include house blessing, staying up all night by candlelight or firelight to watch the sun rise, storytelling and making specific craft or food offerings for the Gods, particularly Sun Gods.

Winter Solstice Festivals

The solstice may have been a special moment of the annual cycle for some cultures even during neolithic times. Astronomical events were often used to guide activities, such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this.

This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, i.e. its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.[7]

The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available.[8] The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but at the beginning of the pagan day, which in many cultures fell on the previous eve.[citation needed]

Because the event was seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common. In cultures which used cyclic calendars based on the winter solstice, the “year as reborn” was celebrated with reference to life-death-rebirth deities or “new beginnings” such as Hogmanay’s redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. Also “reversal” is yet another frequent theme, as in Saturnalia’s slave and master reversals.

But we have to start with Krampus….

From devilish Pieten and black Klazen: Choose the new Piet!

Of course, the Sinterklaas feast must remain. Including Zwarte Piet! However, small organic changes are best possible in a living tradition. In the course of history the party has often changed shape. In the nineteenth century, the Sinterklaas festival in the Netherlands was civilized. Piet got devilish, more negroic features and the Saint himself was now only dressed as a worthy bishop. The wild Nicolaasmaskerade with devils or black Klazen became a solemn entry of St. Nicholas. Changes continued to occur after that. Before 1945 Sinterklaas usually had only one helper, as a result of an action by the Canadian liberators that there were many and that remained the case. In the eighties the roe of Zwarte Piet disappeared. Frightening and threatening to hit was perceived as child-unfriendly and did not fit in with the new educational methods. It is therefore no more than normal to expect that there is a Piet who can not be recognized as a negro (servant / slave) and can not be accused of racism! (1)

In which direction should we look for the change in the shape of our beloved Zwarte Piet? It may be interesting for this reason to look at the helpers of the Saint in other parts of Europe, such as in the mountain valleys of Switzerland and Austria, where the old and rougher version of the feast has held up.


Below is a list of all those Devilish Petes through Europe, where I start with the most horrible beginning, called Krampus, and finish with the suspiciously Black Peter-like Schmützli. Who after this list still thinks that the Piet is only a ‘negro slave’ is blind! Later on, attention is paid to Black Sinterklazen and some other freak gift vendors at Christmas to end with my suggestion for a new Piet!




Dark figures accompanying Saint Nicholas


Krampus from Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland


The most horrible helper of the Saint is surely Krampus. It occurs in Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland. His name comes from ‘claw’ and he looks like a devil. He is horned and hairy, often with a long red tongue. He sometimes wears a stick or a chain and threatens to beat children. The Krampus devils make a tour on Sint Nicolaasavond, making noise with bells and horns. They get ‘schnapps’ from the bystanders. They threaten to take children to hell and beat young women on the buttocks with birch twigs. (2)


Klaubauf and Bartl from Austria


The Klaubauf of Tyrol also looks like a devil with his sheepskin, demon mask with goat horns and red tongue from the mouth. He has a big bag or basket for naughty children. He also drags around with chains as a sign that he is a chained devil. Children in Vinzgau try to wake him up on December 5 with danger for his own life. In Carinthia (Austria) this monster is called the (Schmütz) bartl. He is dressed in black sheepskins, wearing a horned mask and his red tongue hanging from the mouth. Sometimes he has a horse foot and he is limping. There is in Austria the suggestive expression ‘he knows where Barthel gets the mustard from’! The Klaubauf and Bartl like to have schnapps and give a lot of attention to young girls. (3)




Cert from the Czech Republic


cert-mikulas-andel-2010_13 In the Czech Republic they do not bother about it; the companion of the Saint is simply the one or the devil. To keep him in check, he usually has an angel as a companion.

With all these devilish figures, besides Nicholas, there is also often a lost angel. However, these good forces are clearly in the minority. (4)


Pelznickel from northern Germany


Belsnickel2This figure comes from Northwest Germany and gives its gifts without bischoppelijke assistance. Pelznickel means something like pelzen-Nicolaas. He is dressed in skins from head to toe. However, ‘Pelzen’ also means whipping and indeed Pelznickel carries a rod with him. Sometimes he wears a mask with a long tongue. (5)






Knecht Ruprecht from Germany


Ruprecht we already encounter in seventeenth century sources. Ruprecht has a long dark beard, a roe, a bag and a black face. He is dressed in fur and also often has horns on his head. On his back he carries a basket to transport naughty children. He shouted, “I can not do any of the children’s fiches.” He would take naughty children in his pocket to eat later or to throw in the river. Ruprecht, like Robin and Robert, is a common devil name. He was also called Ruklaus, say the rough (Sinter) Klaas. (6)

The Buttnmandl from southern Germany


In Southern Germany in Berchtesgaden, the St. Nicholas Baptist walks along the St. Nicholas Procession. They are young men who have made themselves unrecognizable with bunches of straw and a mask. They are often papered with clocks. Those clocks must continue to ring throughout the parade. There is also a Nicholas woman with her .. (7)


Le père Fouettard from France


Le père fouettardIn parts of eastern France the saint is accompanied by an old acquaintance of him. He is called le père Fouettard which means ‘the whipping slapping father’. He is often dressed in black, with a black beard and has a whip, basket and chains with him. He is an old acquaintance of St. Nicholas, because already in the early Middle Ages there is the story that the Saint once saved three students who were murdered and cut into pieces. These had been put in a keg of brine by the killer. Saint Nicholas pretended to want some meat from that keg and patted the barrel three times with his staff. Promptly the three boys jumped out alive and well! This villain is called father Fouettard in France and may since accompany the Saint to beat the naughty children with his whip. Cozy! (8)




Schmützli from Switzerland


schmutzli bad santa switzerlandThe companion of Sami Klaus (the Swiss name for the Saint) is called Schmützli. This Piet from Switzerland is completely dressed in black or brown and has a black face. Schmütz means dirty. His face is so black with dirt. He had a whip, chain and roe with him, as well as presents and candy in a bag. Only after an exam in good health did the children receive the gifts. If they were naughty, they received the roe. or It was threatened that they had to go with them in the bag and then be eaten in the forest. Nowadays Schmützli leaves the whip and chain at home and no longer threatens. (9)




Hadji Firoez from Iran


HajjiFiruzHadji is a man with a blackened face with red lips and a bright red dress. He is the one who announces the New Year in Persia. He does this with singing, tambourine and dance. This way Hadji ensures that everyone happily and happily enters the New Year. He has a black face because he is so close to New Year’s fires or because he comes from the Underworld. This figure already seems to come from Zoroastrianism – that is, before the arrival of Islam – and is at least 1500 years old! (Source:


Dark Klazen in the Netherlands and Switzerland


If we are still busy, our bishop may also be ready for a makeover. Which child finally knows what a bishop is today? Here too, a dip in history and in the customs of some isolated areas offers many alternatives.

In the nineteenth century Black Klazen went around in Amsterdam. They made noise with rattling chains and were looking for naughty children. Also in Wessinge at the Veluwezoom a Sinterklaas performed with a blackened face. He wore a chain with a stone on his left leg. No Sinterklaas was celebrated in Grou in Friesland, but Saint Peter. Before 1903 St. Peter had a chain on his leg and an old coat, on which delicacies were sewn. He had a cloth on his face that only left his eyes uncovered. This continued until the local kindergarten teacher put an end to it. In Franeker at the beginning of the nineteenth century, masked bargee servants were walking around on Sinterklaas evening. They horned with horns and made kettle music and walked around in ugly robes. One of them was dressed as a devil with a black chain on the leg. For example, there must have been more such parades throughout the Netherlands. (10)

In the Netherlands, only the Sunderums from Terschelling and the Klaasomes or Sunneklazen from Ameland are left over from the ‘wild’ Klazen. They walk around with December 5th. Originally they had white trousers and a shirt and a mask with white gauze. They also carry a stick and a horn. (11)

(On the left Sunderums, on the right a Klaasome)


In Swabia and Switzerland the Kläuse go round on Sinterklaas evening. this is called Klaus hunting. They are dressed in white with a black hood. Furthermore, they are decorated with bells and wears strange masks made of tree bark. Often they have huge mites on and go around with a lot of noise from cowbells, whipbells and hornblowers. (12)




The witches and demons of Christmas


In addition to the demonic beings that accompany Saint Nicholas, you also find related creatures that only appear with Christmas or three kings.


The Christ child


Christmas_throughout_Christendom _-_ The_Christ-child_and_Hans_TrappDuring all of Europe, the church has tried to tame the Nicholas party and make them more pious. Here and there we succeeded by replacing the Saint with the Christ child. This is the child Jesus, but then as a young child. It is depicted as an angelic figure with light blond hair and candles on the head. He will give the gifts at Christmas. In De Alsace this good version has not been completely successful. The child is accompanied by a demonic figure named Hans Trapp. He has a black face, a long beard and has a roe in hand to punish the children. (13)




The Joelbok of Sweden and Finland


The Joelbok or Joulupukki in Sweden and Finland nowadays resembles Santa Claus, but was once dressed in a goatskin with horns and went from door to door as a buck from the door to ask if there were naughty children. (14)






Percht, Berchtel or Butzenbrecht is a female demon from Austria and Switzerland. Originally, she was the Goddess Perchta that is similar to Holda. She rewards the diligent, but punishes the slums. With Epiphany January 6 she is looking for naughty children to rip open their bellies. The Perchten go in the evening in parade through the streets. There are beautiful and ugly Perchten. The ugly Perchten wear masks with horns, cowhides and bells. The Perchten in the parade are similar in appearance to Krampus and Klaubauf, but while these male devils are Percht is really Frau Percht. (15)




Befana from Italy


befanaBefana is an Italian witch who secretly presents gifts to the children on January 6 at night. She wears a scarf around her head and is covered with soot, because she goes through the chimney to bring the presents. She carries a broomstick with her to fly on, but also to give the children who catch her a blow. According to legend, the Three Kings asked her to go to the Christmas child, but she refused. Since then she roams around forever and now presents gifts to other children. She is possibly related to Percht. (16)


The Joelmen of Iceland


The Joelmen or Jolasveinar of Iceland are now funny, dwarfish men who appear one by one in the days before Christmas to do mischievous things. In the past they were a lot more frightening. They went around in a parade dressed in animal skins, with horns and a tail. They lived from cursing. The more there was cursed, the fatter they became! The Joelmen threatened to take the naughty children in their basket.

Also Gryla their monstrous mother goes around, she is looking for naughty children she wants to eat. Gryla is already mentioned in the Edda as a name for a giantess. In the early texts she is depicted as a monster. She had 300 heads with six eyes in each head and two extra eyes in each neck! She had horns and very long ears. She had horse hooves and fifteen tails. She carried stolen mischievous children in her pocket. (17)

Greek devils; the Kallikantzaros


kallikantzaroiThe Kallikantzaroi of Greece move around between Christmas and Epiphany. Then they leave the underworld where they have almost cut down the world tree. They are meager, black creatures, with tails, claws and tusks. They have red eyes, and a red tongue hanging from their mouths. And of course they have horns on their heads! If they can enter a house they make a mess of it. They steal the food, piss in the water canes, shit in the fire and they take care of the young daughters. With Epiphany they have to leave the earth again, but when they arrive at the world tree they appear to be healed and they have to start all over again. .


This being, the Greeks now only know in their folklore whether there have ever been men who have dressed up like that is not certain. Yet they look a lot like Krampus and relatives! (18)


Conclusion: the new Piet


This brief summary must be sufficient to get an impression of the helpers’ of St Nicholas and relatives. What is striking is that they are all excitingly scary. They evoke an attractive kind of fear. Almost all have the appearance of a satyr or a wild man of the forest. They do the things that we do not dare. Even though they are usually not mentioned, you would associate them first with devils. Yet it is not the devil as a symbol for all evil. That is why these creatures are too naughty, too exciting. It is possible that with these dark helpers of St. Nicholas we discovered late exponents of the Horned God. Unfortunately (or fortunately) most of these creatures have been stripped of their nannies and made sweet and cute for the children.


There are at least three layers to be found in the helpers of Sinterklaas – as I see it: the pagan spirit of nature who has strong connotations with the death cult, then the Christian devil who is ‘enslaved’ by the bishop and thus used for the ‘good’ can be and thirdly in the Dutch variant also associations with dark servants from the colonial nineteenth century. The latter does not fit in our time anymore. We can make some effort to get that element out of the Piet. This does not require a rainbow pot: with only a few adjustments, this problem can be solved. I sincerely hope that our Piet will not dilute into a politically correct, commercial, half-soft Christmas elf, but will crystallize to the best that the Piet had to offer through the ages.


My wish list at the Saint for the Piet of the future is as follows: Appearance: pitch black! This is essential. Without a black color, Piet loses his archetypal foundation and then becomes a Christmas elf. Get rid of the clownish pietenpak! Think of something coolers, dark-pelted skins or skins and horns on the head, for example. Furthermore, no earrings, thick lips and frizzy hair or other elements from colonial times! We are really done with that now. The rest is a side issue. The character: away with the stupid Piet, make it exciting, lively and a bit naughty. (19)


Abe van der Veen