In Switzerland, Christmas festivities begin on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. Men parade through the street cracking whips, blowing horns, clanging cowbells, and carrying oversized paper bishop’s miters called Iffelen. These artistic headpieces range from three to six feet tall and are lit from within by a candle. They are designed to replicate stained glass church windows and are often decorated with St. Nicholas on the front and the insignia IHS (Jesus Christ) on the back.
Earlier in the day, a children’s parade features smaller Iffelen often decorated with the red-robed Samichlaus (St. Nicholas) and the black-robed Schmutzli. These two represent the classic good cop/bad cop pairing, with Samichlaus bestowing gifts on well-behaved children while Schmutzli threatens to punish those who have been more naughty than nice.
(Historically, Schmutzli–translated as “dirty”–would kidnap children in his bag and carry them away to be his slaves! Once the ultimate boogie-man, the modern Schmutzli is much more benign.)
Unlike the American version of St. Nick, the Swiss St. Nicholas doesn’t live at the North Pole, but rather in a nearby forest. He comes to the village with a donkey rather than a reindeer. And instead of toys, his gift bag contains nuts, fruit, and spice cookies which the silent, mysterious Schmutzli often dispenses, that is when he’s not threatening children with his twig broom.
In the upcoming Paper Lantern Writer’s anthology Beneath a Midwinter Moon, I tell the story of Prisca, a young, destitute woman in 1869 Switzerland who dons a Schmutzli’s dark robe to avenge a family wrong. During the parade, she joins the rabble-rousing gang of Schmutzlis with their fake beards and bristling brooms. Though boys traditionally play this role, she is emboldened to do so by her mother’s tales of Pertchln. These female acolytes of Perchta (Mother Frost) acted much like Schmutzlis in the winter festivities of Prisca’s mother’s Austrian homeland.
Pretending to be a bad girl allows Prisca to act on her feelings in a time and place where girls were expected to be as obedient as the good little Swiss children who polished their shoes and left them by the door to earn their reward from Samichlaus. Wearing a “villain’s” costume also gives her the courage to face the twin demons of hunger and cold, imposed by her impoverished condition.
Posing as a dark, dangerous figure is something Americans might associate more with Halloween. When we dress up as a goofy vampire or a sexy kitten, we try on an alter ego, explore what it might be like to walk on the wild side. All in good fun, of course. Have you ever worn a scary Halloween costume? Did you act differently when you wore it? Was pretending to be more naughty than nice a trick, a treat, or both?
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.