DeFlip Side #41: The Dark Side of the Claus


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Well, Christmas is around the corner and you all know the drill: You’d better watch out, better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. No really. I mean it. You’d better watch your back. If folklore is to be believed, this is one guy you don’t want to piss off.

Long time Destinites may remember a Christmas segment I did a few years ago in which I traced the evolution of Santa from his historical roots as Bishop Nicholas of Myra. I nicknamed him the fighting saint because of the scuffles he reportedly had with various demons and murderers during his lifetime. Most of these darker aspects of Nicholas’ life have been forgotten these days, as our modern version of Santa has become the embodiment of the generosity and joy of the season. But that hasn’t always been the case.

A scant hundred or so years ago—before he was hijacked by Madison Avenue and given an extreme makeover to sell Coca Cola—the prospect of a visit from Santa wasn’t always so pleasant. In fact, it could be downright scary.

First you need to get into the mindset of the day. Children in the late 19th Century weren’t as coddled as they are now; the prospect of violent, oftentimes hideous ramifications to wrongful actions was part and parcel of the moral lessons of the day.

Many of the Fairy Tales collected by the Brothers Grimm provide great examples of this, such as the horrific ending to the tale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that you won’t see in any Disney cartoon. Snow White still winds up marrying the prince, but her evil stepmother comes to a more grisly end:

“First she thought she would not go to the wedding; but then she felt she should have no peace until she went and saw the bride. And when she saw her she knew her for Snow White, and could not stir from the place for anger and terror. For they had ready red-hot iron shoes, in which she had to dance until she fell down dead.”

Take that, bitch! Red-hot iron shoes. Now that’s a unique flair for revenge. But that’s nothing compared to the eternal suffering guaranteed in a popular children’s book written by a priest of the time called Tracts For Spiritual Reading. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent, despair is on him… His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones. Ask him why he is thus tormented. His answer is that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things…”

The church hierarchy of the time saw nothing wrong with this. In fact, one member went so far as to say the volume offered a great deal to charm, instruct and edify the youthful classes for which it had been written.

So, as you can see, the notion of a Santa with a dark side was much more readily acceptable back then, even expected. I especially like the way this dark side manifested in the Germanic tradition. Children awaiting the arrival of Sanct Herr Nicholaas had to worry about much more than a stocking full of coal. More immediate was the threat posed by the Knecht Ruprecht, sometimes known as Black Pete—a horrific assistant who accompanied St. Nick in doling out gifts. Old Pete was a supposedly a black spirit, sometimes clad in a body of ill-fitting skin, sometimes clad in straw, with a wicked face, horns, fiery eyes, a long red tongue and clanking chains. In other words, Satan himself. The demon is checked only by Nicholas’s whim; naughty children get what they deserve: a stocking full of birch switches with which old Pete could flay the skin from their horrid little bones. Sometimes he even carried the bad ones away in a sack.

Kind of makes you wonder how any kid could have actually looked forward to Christmas in those days. The specter of Pete persists in the Santa mythos of the time until well after the turn of the century, though not in so gruesome a form.

Even L. Frank Baum, the famous author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, uses Pete as a character in his little known book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. And though the book is strictly for children, Pete doesn’t completely shake off his demonic origins. Baum portrays him as one of the race of Knooks, impish creatures whose duty it is to watch over the beasts of the world. Knooks are old, gnarled, crooked little beings. You can’t help but compare them to the Fairie Folk of Irish legend, who, in some traditions, were said to be angels that fought on the side of Satan during the war that led to his downfall, but were condemned to remain with the elements of Earth instead of being cast into Hell. Whether Baum was actually drawing on this tradition is debatable, but the potential connection is intriguing nonetheless.

But like Santa, Pete’s menace decreases with the march of time. He eventually becomes Santa’s human helper—a friendly black dwarf—before disappearing all together. But the loss of Pete didn’t mark the end of Santa’s reign of terror.

It comes to the fore again in a twisted bit of light verse penned by poet Ogden Nash called “The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus” which I proudly present in its entirety:

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.

Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led the classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses.

His mouth was open while he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.

He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked No Admittance.

He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying “Boo!” at little babies.

He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.

Yet people pardoned every sin
And viewed his antics with a grin

Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
“There isn’t any Santa Claus!”

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents quickly sought their grave.

They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:

“Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!”

Slunk like a weasel or a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,

Whispering low to every tot,
“There isn’t any, no, there’s not!

No beard, no pipe, no scarlet clothes,
No twinkling eyes, no cherry nose,

No sleigh, and furthermore, by Jiminy,
Nobody’s coming down the chimney!”

The children wept all Christmas Eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.

No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,

When presently with scalp a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;

He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.

What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

Jabez beheld, oh, awe of awes,
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!

Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of “Don’t,” and “Pretty please.”

He howled, “I don’t know where you read it.
I swear some other fellow said it!”

“Jabez,” replied the angry saint,
“It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.

Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!”

Said Jabez with impudent vim,
“Oh, yes there is; and I am him!

Your language don’t scare me, it doesn’t—”
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!

From grinning feet to unkempt locks
Jabez became a jack-in-the-box,

An ugly toy in Santa’s sack,
Mounting the flue on Santa’s back.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.

No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,

And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,

The saucy boy who told the saint off;
The child who got him, licked his paint off.

Here ends perhaps one of the most disturbing Christmas poems I’ve ever stumbled across. I know Nash wrote it with tongue firmly in cheek, but think of the warm holiday message it delivers: Don’t F with Santa Claus. Sure, Santa has always been portrayed as a judge of behavior, but this goes way beyond the pale of finding out who’s been naughty and nice, with the saint dealing out a generous dollop of Twilight Zone-styled justice. Granted, Jabez was slightly worse than naughty. He was a vicious little bastard who drove his parents to an early grave, tortured animals and infants, and had grinning feet, whatever the hell those are. The kid who ate the paint off the Jabez jack-in-the-box probably died of lead poisoning shortly thereafter. I think Jabez got what was coming to him.

What I find more telling is the fact that author Ogden Nash could so jauntily whip up this portrait of Santa as merciless dispenser of justice—even though he wrote it in the 1950s. Given that he was born in 1902, Nash grew up before the creation of the friendly, sanitized Madison Avenue Santa. He must have had one hell of a healthy respect for the not always so jolly old elf. Let’s face it; a guy who works magic and travels with a demon familiar isn’t someone you take lightly.

So come Christmas Eve remember:

If up on your roof there arises a clatter,
don’t jump out of bed to see what’s the matter;

Throw the covers up over your head,
and pray they’ve come for someone else instead.

Because it’s surely the zombie saint and his black demon ghoul,
pronouncing their judgment in this season of Yule.

Merry Christmas!