Needham History Center & Museum

Ho, Ho … Uh-Oh!

They’re making their list, they’re checking it twice…  Santa and Krampus were often depicted as mirror-images, sharing the Naughty/Nice data. Krampus was also shown following behind Santa as he made his rounds. (“Gruess vom Nicolo!” Greetings from St Nick!)
They’re making their list, they’re checking it twice… Santa and Krampus were often depicted as mirror-images, sharing the Naughty/Nice data. Krampus was also shown following behind Santa as he made his rounds. (“Gruess vom Nicolo!” Greetings from St Nick!)


Who’s Naughty or Nice?  Santa’s makin’ his list and checkin’ it twice – so you’d better watch out, because he’s passing the information to Krampus.  Make no mistake – these guys worked together.  Some Jolly Old Elf!


‘Tis the season of good cheer! Even as adults, we still experience some of the holiday excitement and anticipation that we felt as children. We can argue, as we do each year, about whether Christmas has gotten too commercial, but the fact remains that Christmas is basically fun.  And the threat level is low.

But it was not always thus.

Since the days of Clement Moore and Thomas Nast, we have focused on Jolly Old Saint Nick and his sack of toys for all the good little girl and boys. But remember, he’s makin’ his list – he’s gonna find out who’s nice – and who’s Naughty.

As Christmas got more commercial and gift-centric, we forgot about the Naughty warning. We tend to assume that he’ll give us a pass. We forgot that Santa has a bunch of sidekicks, and not all of them are Nice.

As Christianity took over Europe and the Americas, it officially replaced the religious traditions that went before. But belief is emotional more than intellectual, and people hold on hard to the traditions they were raised with. So although the central religious focus of Christmas – the Nativity – is pretty consistent, the more secular parts still retain a large percentage of the pagan. Even the date – mid-December – reflects the timing of the ancient Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule festivals.

Even good old Saint Nick, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Greece, who was a real person, retains traces of an earlier age. The secret gift-giving seems to have originated in an incident in his life, where he threw three bags of gold under cover of darkness, into a destitute man’s home to prevent him from selling his three daughters into prostitution. But the sleigh and reindeer, as well as the Yule log, the boar’s head, and so forth – these are purely Odin and the Wild Hunt.

And in much of Europe, Santa was accompanied by a truly scary character known as Krampus.  Krampus had counterparts in other parts of Europe – Servant Rupert, Belsnickel, Baboushka, Pere Fouettard, and other regional incarnations. If you were nice, you got gifts from Santa; if you were naughty, Krampus would snatch you up, stuff you in his basket, and carry you off to be beaten. (Or eaten…) Krampus’ name is thought to derive either from a Bavarian dialect word meaning “dead and rotten” or a standard German word meaning “claw” – either way, pretty much tells you all you need to know. Santa and Krampus are often depicted in tandem. Usually Krampus is shown sneaking along behind in Santa’s shadow, or riding with him in the sleigh. Or as the dark/light mirror-image of each other.

So, make no mistake – these guys worked together. Who do you think gave Krampus the Naughty list??

Stories of St Nick and Krampus are most prevalent in the cold countries of northern Europe. But even genial Italy has its cautionary tales. In Italy, there is the Christmas witch, La Befana, an old woman with a broom. The story goes that La Befana was visited by the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem, but she did not have time to go with them right then because she needed to finish sweeping her house. (Anyone reading this who has at least one Italian grandmother knows this person.  I know I do.) As a result, Befana got to Bethlehem too late, so she now rides her broom to distribute the gifts that she was not able to give Jesus to good children in honor of his birth. If you are good, her broom would sweep your house clean, whisking away all the sorrow and bad luck of the previous year. And if you were naughty, she could whack you with it, and give you the good thumping you deserve.

So, you would expect that as the early settlers came over from England to the new colonies, they brought their rich and colorful Christmas traditions with them. But you would be wrong. Christmas in colonial New England was nothing like traditional Christmas in Olde England.

In fact – Bah, Humbug! – in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas. Not ‘discouraged’ or ‘frowned upon,’ but BANNED, as in subject to criminal prosecution and a fine of five shillings (now, about $8000):

“PUBLICK NOTICE For the preventing of disorders, arising in several places within this Jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonour of God and offense of others:  It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christ-mas or the like, either by forbearing labour, festing, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings as a fine to the county.” (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1659)

In the Massachusetts colony, the established church of the 1600s was Puritan. The Puritans were seeking to reform and ‘Purify’ the church by purging it of the idolatry (both saintly and pagan), the princely hierarchy, and the ceremonial excesses that they saw in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. They lived by the authority of the Bible, and their social, civic, and religious lives were intertwined.

So why did the Puritans ban Christmas? Christmas in Catholic/Anglican England was a rollicking time. The harvest was in, the beer had been brewed, and the meat had been salted. It came right at the start of winter – a long, dark, cold season. So, it was a time to celebrate before the gloom set in.  All that feasting on boar’s heads, dancing, wassailing, decking the halls, and resting-us-merry that the carols celebrate – that was Christmas before the 1600s. But the Puritans did not consider a 12-day-long party to be a suitable expression of religious devotion – “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides,” lamented one preacher. And second, there was no authority in the Bible for a December Nativity; the date had been co-opted by early Christians from pagan celebrations that marked the winter solstice.

In the 1640s, England underwent a revolution that drove King Charles I from his throne (and ultimately to the headsman’s block) and established a Puritan Commonwealth. Among the rulings of the new Parliament was the decree in 1644 that December 25th would thereafter be a day of “fasting and humiliation” and that anyone caught celebrating or setting aside their labor would be charged with an offense and fined.  

The Puritan General Court of Massachusetts soon followed suit, outlawing the celebration of Christmas in 1659.

The English monarchy was restored in 1660, but Puritans maintained their power in Massachusetts. The ban remained law until 1681, and continued in practice for many more decades. Throughout the 1700s, December 25th was a regular day of work and school. It was not until 1856 that Christmas became a recognized legal holiday in Massachusetts.

So how did we get Christmas back? In part, because American society became more diverse in religion as new denominations flourished. Civic and religious matters were legally made separate in Massachusetts in 1833, so public life became a secular matter.  Add to that, the rise of the industrial economy in the mid-late 1800s and the more widespread availability of consumer goods.  The 1840s also saw a huge influx of immigrants – Germans and Scandinavians settling in the Midwest, and Catholic immigrants, first Irish, then Italians and Poles, in the northeast, for whom the festive celebration of Christmas was customary.

And in part we owe it to Charles Dickens – “the Man Who Invented Christmas” – whose tale of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge was published in 1843, just as the public celebration of Christmas was being revived. To a nation struggling with expansion, immigration, industrialization, and the loss of established ties, A Christmas Carol provided sentiment, nostalgia, and an enduring image of Christmas “as it used to be” – as we would always like it to be.

"At Christmas play and make good cheere, for Christmas comes but once a yeere." (Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1573)
“At Christmas play and make good cheere, for Christmas comes but once a yeere.” (Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1573)

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum