As we approach the winter solstice this weekend and the new moon on Christmas Night, I’ve been thinking about how the long, dark nights influence the Season of Light.
In Switzerland, a dark character is an integral part of their Christmas celebration. Dressed in a brown robe and wearing a blackened face, Schmutzli (from Schmutz or “dirt”) is a sinister sidekick to the gift-bearing Samichlaus (Santa Claus or St. Nicholas). In The Casket Maker’s Other Wife, my Swiss protagonist Anna recalls these divergent figures as she homesteads during harsh winters in the American West.
Similar figures appear throughout Europe and Scandinavia including the chimneysweep servant Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, the terrifying monster Krampas in Austria and the sack-wielding child-snatcher Black Pete in the Netherlands.
In Switzerland, Samichlaus appears on December 6 and fills shoes with cookies, nuts and oranges. One or more Schmutzlis travel with him, carrying a burlap bag filled with Samichlaus’s gifts.
The bag can also be used to capture unruly children who will be taken to the forest until they’re fit for society—or, if they don’t change their ways, they are simply thrown away! Schmutzlis also carry switches or brooms to beat misbehaving children. Samichlaus and his dark counterparts do not ride in a sleigh but trudge through the snow with a donkey.
One legend says the original Schmutzli was an old woodcutter who rescued Samichlaus’s gifts when his burlap bag got a hole in it. The woodcutter is rewarded with a lifetime of playing “bad cop” to Samichlaus’s “good cop.”
In order to avoid the wrath of Schmutzli, children recite a poem and report on their good behavior during the past year. They must prove whether they’ve been naughty or nice.
So what purpose does Schmutzli serve? Why does the Swiss Santa Claus need a dark henchman?
Ethnologist Paul Huggar says that “Schmutzli brings a touch of fear, which makes the whole thing more attractive.”
Human nature seems to demand a bogeyman. In the case of the Swiss Schmutzli, he helps keep children in line. In the past, gangs of teenage boys often wore Schmutzli costumes to blow off adolescent steam in the confines of winter. He may have also provided a way for adults to face their own fears—much like horror films allow us to process our nightmares in a safe environment.
During the bleak midwinter, when we light our homes to drive away the dark, perhaps its helpful to see the long nights take the form of a grimy bogeyman who can be vanquished by light-bearing mortals. On December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, during Klausjagen (“Chasing Santa”) parades, lantern-wielding Swiss children and adults raise a ruckus to herald the arrival of Samichlaus and Schmutzli. I suspect their outcry is part “welcome” and part “we ain’t afraid a’ no ghosts!”
This December marks the end not only of the year, but of a decade. It’s a time of reckoning; a time to let go of the old to prepare for the new. Long, dark nights provide the opportunity to reflect on what we wish to release as well as the chance to dream of what’s to come. As the longest night of 2019 approaches, will you welcome or confront the dark?
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.