About 250km to the south of us lie the Alps, already covered in a good thick layer of snow at this time of year. The mountains have always been fascinating to me, and seeing them awakens that same childish pleasure as when I catch the first glimpse of the sea on the way to the seaside.
Summer near Berchtesgaden
And the traditions find it fascinating too.
Before the age of digital photos I would occasionally drive there, either for some sightseeing of the beautiful lakes and mountain passes, or for a day of skiing.
Life in the villages and remote farms in mountainous regions used to be very hard in winter (and still can be), and many superstitions arose, particularly regarding this time of year. Some of these are rather sinister, with evil spirits and fearsome creatures playing a role. One of these is Krampus, often depicted as a hairy horned man-like figure, who frightened children into being well-behaved. This is one of the least frightening photos I could find. If you search ‘Krampus’ online you will see even scarier images!
Photo from National Geographic
Similarly, in Bavaria ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ was an evil man dressed completely in black, who supposedly ate naughty children. Here he is depicted as part animal, resembling the devil…
While, on December 6th, the good children receive gifts from Saint Nicholas (the original Santa!), naughty children were tortured; I remember a student of mine (an adult at the time) telling us how he was still filled with dread on December 6th when he recalled how he was collected by Krampus/ Knecht Ruprecht every year and put in a sack, convinced he was going to die!!
Another myth involves evil who people make a pact with the devil during these dark days and turn into weirwolves, threatening humans and animals alike. It was common to burn incense in the stables and barns over Christmas, to ban evil spirits. One of the superstitions I have heard is that the animals in the barns are suddenly able to speak, and foretell the future. Should, however, anybody hear them, he or she is destined to immediate death. (Not sure how that one can be explained!) Another story is that on New Year’s Eve the animals can air their complaints to the ‘house spirit’ about the farmer if they have been mistreated, and he will then be punished. (I like that one!)
All of these myths and many more have become tradition and are remembered, re-enacted or celebrated in December, mainly between Thomas Day (today, December 21st) and Epiphany (January 6th) – the so-called ‘Rauhnächte’ – varying greatly from region to region. The appropriate clothing, masks and paraphernalia are passed down through generations or carefully preserved by communities. I love the fact that so many truly ancient traditions are still alive here today, mostly with pagan origins, being then rearranged around Christian holidays and adapted or extended over the centuries. I am sure, though, that children nowadays are not tormented as much as my student was 50-odd years ago. 😉
And now some nicer images… of my garden on a frosty winter solstice day. 😃
(Click on any image to open a slideshow).
Wishing you a happy Solstice day.