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Santa’s Little Helpers

By Maija Zummo · December 15th, 2011 · Dear Maija

Santa (aka Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Tim Allen) is an old white dude of debatable Pagan/Christian/secular origin whose primary task is to bring gifts to children all over the world at some point during the months of December and January, arriving via sleigh, donkey or by boat from Spain. 

And while it is true that a single man cannot be everywhere at once (i.e. all Macy’s stores), regardless of how many names he goes by, this jolly gent frequently comes a calling with a slew of helpers ranging from elves and devils to assorted barnyard animals. Avoiding the limelight, these companions are the backbone of the Christmas industry, carrying the burden of making gifts, beating children with sticks and transporting the Man in Red using their supernatural power of flight. 

In much of Europe, children eagerly await the arrival of Saint Nicholas, who comes each year from Madrid by steamboat in mid-November or early December to travel the continent by donkey, breaking into family homes and leaving gifts of sweets and small toys in children’s shoes. 

But this patron saint does not break into your home alone; he’s frequently accompanied by Krampus or his good friend, “Black Pete.”

Krampus is a goat-hair-covered devil donning a mask, sacks and chains, who drunkenly roams the streets of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia during Krampusumzüge violently attacking little boys, girls and young women with sticks and chains. A grotesque but useful companion, the goat man enters the bedroom of sleeping children with Saint Nick to give the bad kids bundles of sticks instead of presents. These sticks will be used to beat them in the morning while the good children enjoy their candy. And the children he finds awake? He kidnaps them, stuffs them into a sack and forcefully removes them from their homes.  

“Black Pete,” known as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Père Fouettard in France, is a spritely, Moorish helper who assists Saint Nicholas in leaving gifts.

Besooted by his journey down the chimney, Zwarte Piet sports black hands — and blackface — along with offensive large red lips, an idiot’s demeanor and colorful outfits. Pete arrives several weeks before Saint Nick’s boat docks from Spain in order to entertain children and listen at chimneys to see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. His job is to beat the bad children into submission with sticks and further punish them by carrying them off to Spain in a burlap sack. 

Another couple of other unholy-s you’ll see with Saint Nick: Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht. Belsnickel is a fur-clad gentleman frequently seen wearing a mask and going door-to-door seeking children. After rapping on a home’s door or window with a stick, Belsnickel requests to see the children of the house, rewarding the good ones by throwing nuts and candy on the floor for them to retrieve like dogs, and beating the bad ones. Knecht Ruprecht travels around with Saint Nick carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes with little bells on his clothes. He asks random children he finds on the street if they can pray. If they pass his test, he’ll give them an apple. If they can’t, he’ll beat them with the bag of ashes. 

Unlike abused European children who have to gather their presents from shoes or the floor, Americans are rewarded with a different type of door-to-door service. Even the bad ones are given a lump of coal, which is a valuable global energy commodity. 

In America, Santa Claus sneaks into homes on the evening of Dec. 24 through a chimney or window in order to leave children gifts they requested via sitting on his lap or through a letter they wrote to him.  

According to northpole.com, Santa gets down the chimney by holding the left side of his nose and inhaling to shrink to size, sometimes snuffing a “magic dust.” With properties eerily similar to cocaine, this magic dust increases alertness, feelings of competence and enhances athletic performance, all qualities Santa needs to withstand harsh temperatures, believe reindeer can fly and squeeze down approximately 100 billion chimneys in one night.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is an essential part of Santa’s flying reindeer team. Previously ostracized due to physical deformity, Rudolph became a valuable asset when his bright, glowing nose was able to guide Santa’s sleigh around the world one foggy Christmas Eve. A truly inspirational tale of overcoming odds, Rudolph’s triumph has been immortalized in story and song. Sadly, he’s still required to heft the large man around the world bound by reigns and covered in bells.

Left at home in the technically uninhabitable North Pole are Santa’s elves and his wife, Mrs. Claus. The underappreciated matrimonial (and apparently barren) partner of Santa is required to wait at home while he works, cleaning the house, stoking the fire and baking cookies despite the fact that the man eats and drinks himself to obesity for free. (Santa is left milk and cookies in America, Guinness in Ireland, sherry and mince pie in Australia and rice porridge in Sweden.)

A replacement for the children lacking in their life (outside of those whose homes are invaded in the night), elves make up the remainder of the North Pole inhabitants. Assorted little people in the service of Santa, elves are required to dress in red or green and forced to make toys for the world’s children for slave wages (they’re paid in cookies and cocoa). As a way to earn some extra cash during the holiday season, they are also frequently seen in shopping malls assisting children onto the laps of humans dressed like Santa.

CONTACT Maija Zummo: letters@citybeat.com



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