The Hair-Raising History of the Winter Holidays
Ready or not, that time of cheer, goodwill, festive gatherings and indulgent feasts usually referred to as “the holidays” is upon us. While all those aspects of the season ring of joy, let’s be honest, they rarely come alone. They often bring with them frantic quests to find a perfect gift, maddeningly repetitious play lists, poor decisions at office parties and uncomfortable interactions with distant relatives, just to name a few. In fact, they can sometimes be downright frightening.
For much of human history, dangers surrounding the holidays held more than the threat of icy roads or arguments over how someone words their greetings. Winter was a particularly difficult time of year. Food was scarce and surviving cold temperatures was challenging. Not only did the longer nights deprive us of mood and energy enhancing vitamin D, but they were also associated with spirits of the dead that were said to inhabit the darkness and wander the earth during the coldest season.
To combat these difficulties, people have been engaging in a variety of rituals and festivities for thousands of years. There were celebrations of the sun and light, feasts of abundance and merriment, processions to keep the dead at bay, et cetera. Some of these practices still survive under the guise of Christmas tradition, while others have lain hidden in the rural valleys and mountains of Europe, from which they are slowly beginning to reemerge.
There is no better example of these ancient traditions surfacing here in America than in the popularity of Krampus, a pre-christian figure that was eventually linked with the celebration of St. Nicholas in Austria, Bavaria and Germany during the 12th century. Modern times have rendered this figure as an evil reflection of the gift-giving Saint, acting as a travel companion and issuing punishment for bad children in the form of whipping, enslavement, kidnapping and cannibalism.
Pardon the pun, but the U.S. is eating this concept up! In recent years, Krampus has been the subject of multiple movies and books and appears on all sorts of holiday clothing. Many American cities are also starting to host Krampus Parades that mimic the traditional Krampuslauf or Perchtenlauf, where people dress as the feared creature in an effort to scare away evil entities.
Not only were tales of monsters, demons and witches prevalent during the winter holidays, but ghost stories were also an integral part of the celebrations. In the British Isles it was common to gather around the fire on Christmas Eve and share stories of spirits, because as long as you remained inside that darkest of nights, you would be safe. The next morning’s light meant the beginning of longer days and that the veil between the world of the living and dead was closing. The practice of the Christmas ghost story was all but lost until Charles Dickens published his classic work “A Christmas Carol” in 1843.
On the subject of caroling, it didn’t used to just be songs of merriment and well wishing that were sung by groups of rosy-cheeked do-gooders traveling from door-to-door. Early carols also included threats and lewd suggestions, drunkenness and sometimes even actual violence. The main gist was “give me something or else!”
If you think this seems an awful lot like trick-or-treat in sound and action, that’s because both caroling and trick-or-treat have partial origins in the medieval practice of mumming or souling – where a group would go door-to-door and pray for the dead of the house in exchange for a token of food or drink. Yes, Christmas and Halloween are much more closely linked than many people realize.
Surprisingly, Columbus offers a variety of options for those wishing to add a touch of these lesser-known aspects of the holidays to their winter celebrations, a list of which is provided below. If Hallmark Channel movies, peppermint lattes and ugly sweater parties are more your speed, may your days be merry and bright. As Ebenezer Scrooge said prior to his ghostly visitations, you “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine”.
On Sunday, December 1, grab your scariest mask, birch twigs and noisemakers to symbolically frighten away all things bad and start the new year fresh at the 5th annual Columbus Krampus Walk. This family-friendly walk steps off at 3 p.m. in front of The Global Gallery Coffee Shop, 3535 N. High St., and proceeds half a mile south to The Magical Druid at 3165 N. High St. Show up at The Magical Druid between 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. on the day of the parade to get your picture taken with Krampus.
If it’s a traditional European Holiday Market with a twist that you’re in the mood for, visit The Merry Krampus at Strongwater Food & Spirits, 400 W. Town St. This event also takes place on Sunday, December 1 from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and will feature over 40 vendors of dark arts and crafts, along with food trucks, a specialty brew from Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, photo opportunities for both naughty and nice children with Krampus or Santa and raffles benefiting Colony Cats and Dogs Adoption Center.
On December 13 – 14, the folks at the 13th Floor Haunted House, 2605 Northland Plaza Drive, will transform their top-rated frightfest into a labyrinth of holiday fear with sinister snowmen, evil elves, terrifying teddy bears and, of course, everyone’s favorite Christmas demon, Krampus. Photo ops as well as holiday treats and a mini escape room are also available.
Friday, November 29 thru Sunday, December 1, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan will be performing their timeless production of this classic holiday ghost story at the magnificent Ohio Theatre. Presented by CAPA and now in its 40th year, this Columbus holiday tradition is sure to please both young and old.
On Friday, December 13, Witchlab Occult Boutique, 1185 W. Broad St., will be performing a live recreation of a Victorian Spiritualist Seance. The evening’s event will include presentation on the history of seances and spirit contact, as well as an attempt to contact the presence that is thought to inhabit their building. Admission to this 21 and up event includes complimentary beverages. Victorian attire is encouraged.
Keep the spirit of the Victorian Christmas ghost story “alive” by joining Columbus Ghost Tours on select dates throughout December for their Haunted Holiday bus and walking tours. Both tours visit historic Downtown taverns, as well as landscapes adorned in beautiful holiday lights where guests are told tales of ghastly horror and winter wraiths from Columbus’ darker past.
To see a schedule of Columbus Ghost Tours upcoming events, including the Haunted Holiday Tours mentioned in this article, visit columbusghosttours.com.