Happy Mother’s Day to my brilliant mom! And to my mother in law, my sister and sisters-in-law, and to all the moms out there! (I know we are well past British Mothering Sunday, but this weekend is the American holiday. Feel free, all you Brits, to have an extra celebration on us!)
Two glamorous girls– my mom and me– on a beach in South Carolina, where so many of my fist travels took place. Circa 1969.
You and I tend to know February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but it’s been a festival day for a long time, and its roots go back deep into the calendar of the Christian church, and far deeper still. The day marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it’s considered the beginning of spring, or at least (if you live where it is still remarkably cold, like I do) the tipping point where winter and dark begin making way for warmth and light.
Candlemas is rarely observed in the church these days, but our old hometown of Ripon, England still honors the day. The cathedral hosts a Candlemas service in the evening, and the cathedral is lit by thousands of candles. To clarify–it is lit by thousands of candles only. It is brillliant. The first time I walked into one of these services, my children in their winter pajamas (they were young, and it was late and cold out), we all gasped and immediately whispered “Harry Potter!” This is the best way I know to describe the look of the cathedral to a Candlemas novice or a wizard fan–think of Hogwarts’ great hall and its floating candles. In Ripon Cathedral, the thousands of candles are set around the edges of the ground, in the clerestory ledges, and in every shelf and cubby along those ancient stone walls. They appear to float and rise. It’s heady stuff, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
The Ripon Cathedral website posted the following blurb about Candlemas last year:
Candlemas is one of the most ancient feasts of the Church, and occurs 40 days after Christmas, on the 2nd February. It is also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, in reference to the episode in Luke’s gospel (2:22-40). This ancient festival has been celebrated at Ripon for centuries. A visitor to the Cathedral in 1790 declared that the whole building was “one continued blaze of light all afternoon”. This year, the Cathedral will once again shine with the light of thousands of candles, symbolising Jesus as the light of the world.
It’s good to know that, dark and cold as it still is (whether we are speaking of the weather and season, or of world events), we can look to a tipping point and the hope of spring. (Even if Punxsutawney Phil is right and the next few weeks will be chill, spring must come some day.) It is also good to know that, in a world of cultural globalization, where McDonalds is edging its way into every corner, you can still stumble on those few enclaves where something ancient, unusual, and beautiful will make you catch your breath. . . even if you find yourself whispering “Harry Potter” in the aftermath.
You need only scratch the surface of modern Europe to see the pulsing of its medieval veins. This can be a little unnerving, but it’s also deeply gratifying in a way that’s hard to pin down.
Take Christmas traditions as an example. In America, we embrace a jovial, generous Santa Claus (who, for all of his good character points, does seem to team up with Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the rest of the commercial establishment a little too often for comfort). He surrounds himself with other agreeable characters– Rudolph and Frosty–and they have a jolly time. Sure, adversity must be overcome, but their stories never really cross to the dark side.
Would you like a little saccharin with that sweet?
Not so in Germany and Austria. Oh, they’ll serve you sweets at each turn this time of year, but you’re never quite sure what they are fattening you up for. You might cheer your good fortune at stumbling upon a kind old lady in a gingerbread house! You might anticipate a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th (Nikolaustag) with unbridled joy! But wait. What if the good fortune is not what it appears?
Because sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes, you walk into a Salzburg sweet store in late November to see this: St. Nicholas in all of his chocolatey goodness.
But the next thing your eyes fall upon is this:
Holy camole! What’s that all about? Well, simply put, you are in the Old World now, the land of the Brothers Grimm, where every light casts a shadow.
Yes, there’s always a dark underbelly in Germany. For each saint, there’s a devil; for each sweet, there’s a reckoning; for each life, there’s a death. Each candle-strewn Christmas pyramid holds back the dark of a frozen winter, and each yin has its yang.
Many unlucky children have found themselves, not on Santa’s lap, but staring down a devil named Krampus. (You just met his likeness in foil-covered chocolate, above.) A demon who, at best, humiliated children with twigs instead of candy at Christmas. At worse, beat them heartily with those switches. And at worst, dragged them down to Hell. (Well, they had been naughty, you know.)
This is stern stuff. A little shocking to those of us raised on Miracle on 34th Street or T’was the Night Before Christmas. Well, my friends . . .welcome to Middle Europe, where St. Nick is often accompanied by a sinister sidekick: Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Schwarz Peter. Krampus is horned and devilish, Knecht Ruprecht and Schwarz Peter are more recognizably human, but sooty, uninviting, and coal and switch-laden. (Whether this surly sidekick is malevolent or simply mischievous is entirely dependent upon whose hands he is in. . . or possibly on how naughty the child has been.)
Our first run in with Krampus was in that sweets store in Salzburg, but last weekend we ran into him again–this time at the Christkindlmarkt at Bernkastel-Kues. His boat was parked among the market stalls.
I’m not sure what the boat motif is all about. We were on the Mosel River…but my sister has (rightly) suggested that this looks more like something from the River Styx, where the ferryman will guide you to the afterlife…right after St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht decide your fate!! Oh, and Merry Christmas!
We laughed about this, but for those of us who remember Santa as all love and no menace, this is jarring. Our “Christmas judgment” was always at the hands of this guy:
He was rumpled and happy, and he smelled of candy canes. If we got tongue tied, it was only because we were overcome by his largess. It was never because we feared for our very souls.
Honestly, if I had found myself, at age six, sitting between St. Nicholas in his starchy Pope’s hat and some vaguely human entity who looked like this
swarthy vagrant. . . well. . .
Hmmmm. . . I don’t know how that would have worked out. I certainly wouldn’t have produced a long list of “things I’d like for Christmas, because I want them, or I need them, or I saw them in the Sears Wish Book, or the Saturday morning commercial looked awesome, or Sarah’s best friend Suzy has one and I want one too!”
And so, it occurs to me that all German and Austrian children must be really, really, very, very good at Christmas time. And very undemanding.
And very scared.
Good thing they get to stave off the dark and deadly cold of the season by going home and lighting candles on those popular German Christmas pyramids and candle arches, and by hanging glowing Moravian stars all over the house. You certainly need all the light you can get when Krampus is skulking around outside in the dark streets.
It’s the German way–an austere world view, gilded around the edges with gingerbread and chocolates. The devil will always lurk in the shadow of the saint; the dark and cold will always stand sentry at the edge of the firelight. . .but if you are well behaved and diligent, you may just hold the dark at bay for a while.
So, I’ll leave you with a holiday toast: eat, drink, and be merry. . .for tomorrow, you may meet Krampus.
*One, final, note: this dynamic duo of St. Nick and Krampus seems to own the holiday of Nikolaustag (Nikolaus Day and Eve, December 5th and 6th). After that, Weihnachtsman, Kris Kringle, Santa, the Christ child (Christkind), or some other regional “santa” takes center stage for Christmas. I can’t say that I understand these myriad traditions yet…but maybe I can shed more light on this by next Christmas.