New Year’s Eve With Demons

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Each year on New Year’s Eve the Japanese village of Oga carries out an elaborate ritual involving  demonic-like ogre figures, the Namahage. 

Legends behind the Namahenge vary in Japan, but in Oga their story is well established and it is one everyone knows:

Nearly two millennia ago, Emperor Han brought five demons with him to the region. The demons stole crops and young women. The villagers devised a ploy to thwart the demons, telling them all crops and women would be freely given to them, if first they constructed a staircase of one thousand steps in a single night. The demons agree and set to work on the staircase however, a villager imitated the crow of a rooster, signaling the break of dawn just as the demons had laid down the 999th stair. Fearing daylight, the demons rapidly retreated back to their mountain home, leaving the task incomplete. 

Although you can find various celebrations and rituals involving the Namahage throughout Japan, no one does it better than Oga. A grand festival occurs on New Year’s Eve each year involving elaborate, costumed dances, an enormous bonfire and Japanese drumming. There’s all-you-can-drink sake, too. The highlight of the festival though is the appearance of fifteen Namahage marching down from the mountain where they are said to live to descend upon the village. The demons hand out sticky rice cakes to the citizens of Oga, believed to ward off disaster in the coming year. 

Later that day the Namahage are preceded by a sakidachi. The sakidachi visits every house in Oga to discern first if the household is in mourning or if anyone there is suffering from a serious illness. If so, this house is overlooked for the year. If not, the sakidachi inquires if any new children  ave been born into the family and this is noted. Entry is then requested. At this time the head of household must welcome in the sakidachi and a throng of Namahage, who proceed to yell in terrifying voices and stomp around the house. 

After they settle down the Namahnge are served food and sake and they begin to interview the head of household about the state of his harvest and senior family members. They then ask if the the younger inhabitants of the home are working and studying hard and providing adequate care for other members of the family. They state how very angry they will be if they learn someone in the house is lazy or disobedient. The HoH proceeds to reassure the Namahage and tries to change the subject, but they aren’t buying it, remarking on the laziness and rudeness of the wife and children of the house as they have not appeared to pay their respects to the Namahage. Things get crazy from here on out. 

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Since the demons can see everything that happens in each house from their mountain home they take notes in a special book throughout the year. The book is extracted at this time and the deeds of the family are more closely examined. No matter how good you were, in Japan, you can allays do better! The Namahenge are not at all pleased and declare your wife and kids lazy and rude. The wife’s terrible parenting skills are also discussed.

At this time the namahage have decided all ladies and children of the house are just too naughty and lazy to live and they have firmly decided to take all of them back to their demonic mountain lair. The Namahage proceed to get up and physically go after the women and children, terrifying them. There are often tears and screaming.

The HoH begs and pleads with the demons not to take his family and promises to discipline them all better during the communing year. He also plies them with more sake.  The demons eventually calm down and declare their trust in the vows of the HoH and agree not to kidnap his now terrified family. However, they tell the HoH that at any point during the year, if the women and children do not comply, the Namahage can be summoned to the home by clapping their hands three times while facing their mountain. Just before the demons take their leave they warn the family of their return next New year’s Eve.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Image sources

Artwork by Yuko Shimizu

Photograph via Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum

Resources

The Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum

Namahage – Important Intangible Cultural Asset

Japan Today 

The Christmas Spectre of Clarence Street

Humphrey Brooke, a fifty year old, well respected physician and life long bachelor was not what most would find physically appealing. He was shorter than average and his extremely stooped shoulders didn’t help. At the end of his long, crooked nose sat a pair of spectacles and to add to these he was asthmatic and quite socially awkward.

Dr. Brooke was the opposite of twenty year old Felicia Clayton. Felicia was the belle of Liverpool – a stunningly beautiful, kind and charming young daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate. It could be said that Felicia was the Scarlett O’Hara of Liverpool – she could have the heart of any man and was inundated with love letters, gentlemen suitors and proposals of marriage.

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The pair first met at a funeral, when Dr. Brooke was introduced to Felicia. He was overwhelmed by her beauty and kissed her hand. He stared at her during the rest of the funeral and she responded by smiling at him a couple times.

Dr. Brooke caught sight of Felicia around town a couple times after this, once when she was coming out of a carriage and again as she walked down the street with a suitor. This second time, while in a suitor’s company, she saw Dr. Brooke and waved to him, but not only did she wave but looked back over her shoulder twice to smile at him. The suitor became jealous and reprimanded her.

Dr. Brooke’s infatuation with Felicia was now at it’s peak. He hurried home and began to keep a journal of his feelings for her and detailing in it, his plans to win her heart.

When the Christmas season came around and Dr. Brooke received an invitation to a lavish Christmas Eve ball, he took the opportunity and lovingly crafted a letter to his beloved Felicia, asking her to attend the ball with him.

She accepted.

Some days later, a friend of Dr. Brooke’s, well known womanizer Charles Wilson, came to visit him. During their visit, Wilson asked if Dr. Brooke had any plans for Christmas Eve as he wanted company at a local pub for that evening. He was certain his awkward and unattractive companion would be alone, as usual. To his surprise, Dr. Brooke informed him that he did indeed have plans, ones that involved the most sought after woman in the city.

Wilson was not only shocked but also very jealous. He, too had tried his charms on Felicia – to no avail. Wilson expressed his disbelief and was trying to talk Dr. Brooke out of what he called his “fantasies” when a woman burst in informing the doctor of a medical emergency and it necessitated his immediate attention. On the way out the door, Dr. Brooke produced Felicia’s letter of acceptance to the ball and handed it to Wilson.

Angry and more jealous than ever, Wilson started going through Dr. Brooke’s belongings and discovered the journal wherein his “friend” had disclosed all his feelings, hopes and dreams for a future with Felicia Clayton. Vindictive and nasty Wilson went home and proceeded to author a letter to Felicia’s father. In it, he disclosed their plans for the ball and made his “friend” look as bad as possible, including implications that Dr. Brooke was not only old, unhealthy and a bad catch for any woman let alone the most eligible girl in town, but that he was also mentally unstable.

Mr. Clayton received Wilson’s letter, and wrote one of his own to Dr. Brooke.

Come that Christmas Eve of 1910, Dr. Brooke dressed in an expensive and elegant long, purple velvet coat and embroidered waistcoat and fashionably long, narrow trousers. He smoked a pipe and waited until the time finally came to see his dearest when a knock came at the door with a boy delivering the letter from Mr. Clayton. In it, Clayton lied and said Felicia had accepted his invitation out of pity and that she wanted nothing to do with Brooke. The letter closed with the following:

“It is of utmost impropriety for a man of fifty to be indulging in romantic delusions about a girl thirty years his junior. I warn you to cease annoying my daughter and act with the dignity befitting your age and station. If you persist in trying to win her attentions, it will be at great social and professional cost to you.”

Following the reading of the letter Dr. Brooke, devastated and completely distraught died of a heart attack hours later. As he fell to the floor, he took down a clock on the mantelpiece with him. When the clock crashed to the floor it broke and stopped at Dr. Brooke’s time of death – 10:50 P.M. I guess you could say he quite literally died of a broken heart.

It is said that Felicia ignored her father’s commands and went to the ball to look for Dr. Brooke anyway. It seems she was quite touched by his letter. When she could not find him, she left the ball – much to the dismay of the males in attendance.

Since then, it is believed that the spirit of Humphrey Brooke haunts the house on Clarence Street each Christmas Eve. There are strange rappings, an angry voice that curses and cries out from within. Many a passerby has claimed to have seen a man, around fifty years old dressed in Victorian era clothing wandering on the street outside the house.

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The Christmas Spectre Of Clarence Street is also available as an audio version from The Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast

Christmas Bigfoot

In Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia there is a version of bigfoot called The Karakoncolos, who appears during the Christmas holidays.  He lurks in the shadows on street corners awaiting the arrival of passerby. When someone crosses The Karakoncolos’ path, the asks them a riddle. If  the word “black” is not incorporated into the answer, the unfortunate person receives a death blow from the monster.

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If you think you can avoid The Karakoncolos by avoiding street corners, you are sadly mistaken! At night, he waits outside of houses. Imitating the voice of a loved one in distress, or sometimes transforming into the guise of a little girl, he lures people outside and places them in a trance, making them immobile. In result, The Karakoncolos’ intended victim freezes to death.

In Serbia, the twelve holy days of Christmas were referred to as “unbaptized days.” During this time ghosts and demons ran rampant, The Karakoncolos among them. If he finds anyone outside  at night he will jump on the poor person’s back and demand to be carried around. This torment only ends with the rooster’s call at dawn when The Karakoncolos must retreat once again, into the shadows.

References

Encyclopedia Mythica 

Weird Animal Report

Icelandic Terrors

Iceland may be the last place you’d want to spend the Christmas holidays. Here’s why:

Gryla

One of Iceland’s most renowned figures associated with Christmas made her first appearance in ancient Pagan times. An especially terrifying figure, Gryla is a giant troll with hooves for feet and sports an impressive thirteen tails. This lady-troll is in a perpetual bad mood due to her insatiable hunger…for children. Each Christmas, Gryla comes down from her mountain dwelling to hunt for bad children. She places them in a sack and drags them back to her cave where she boils them alive for her favorite stew.

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Grylas wrath is not reserved solely for human children, but she has been through three husbands already, two of which she killed because they bored her. I’m sure you are wondering by now what her children are like. She has thirteen of them, all boys and they are the subject of the next Icelandic Christmas monster:

The Yule Lads

The thirteen sons of Gryla are each known for a particular habit or characteristic, much like the Disney version of Snow White’s seven dwarves. Most of them are depicted as mischievous pranksters and petty criminals. Icelandic children are visited each night on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.

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They are:

Sheep Cote Clog – A peg legged sheep fancier. His “fancy-ing” is impaired by his peg legs.

Gully Gawk – hides out in ditches or gullies and waits for an opportune moment to run into the cow shed and lick the foam off the milk in the milking buckets.

Stubby – His name denotes his stature as he is unusually short. If your pie pan is missing, you can bet Stubby has stolen it to eat whatever pie crust was left behind.

Spoon Licker – Licker and thief of spoons.

Pot Scraper – Petty thief of leftovers.

Bowl Licker – This one hides under your bed and waits for you to absentmindedly put down your bowl so he can steal and yes, lick it.

Door Slammer – Oh, did you just fall asleep? Not for long! This guy plans on slamming doors all night.

Skyr Gobbler – There will be no skyr, a type of yogurt, left in your house on the night the Skyr Gobbler visits.

Sausage Swiper – He’s going to steal your sausage. I hope its well hidden.

Window Peeper – He’s watching you right now. 

Doorway Sniffer – Uses his incredibly large nose to sniff through doors as a leaf bread, (a traditional Icelandic Christmas bread), locator.

Meat Hook – This fellow always brings a hook along with him so he can steal meat.

Candle Stealer – He follows children around so he can steal their candles, leaving them in the dark…

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The Yule Cat – The pet of both Gryla and The Yule Lads, The Yule Cat’s prey consists of both children and adults. Unlike the others, this cat does not care about your misdeeds during the year. The only insurance against being torn apart and eaten by this giant feline, is receiving an article of new clothing for Christmas. Shop wisely.

Images:

Gryla painting image sourced from this post

The Yule Lads image

References

Iceland.is

Belsnickel

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In some German and Pennsylvannia Dutch communities, Belsnickel shows up a couple weeks early, filthy and dressed in rags and furs to beat the children who have misbehaved. One Philadelphia newspaper from 1827 recounts a visitation from Belsnickel: “Mr. Belsnickel [makes] his personal appearance dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts; and either the cakes or the whip are bestowed upon those around…”

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In some accounts from 1870s New York and Philadelphia, Belsnickel took punishment to the extreme by threatening to kidnap or drown badly behaved children. Some Yuletide revelers would dress up in his guise and go “Belsnicking.”  They would play pranks on their neighbors or sometimes became drunk or unruly and committed more serious acts of vandalism.

Resources

It’s Belsnickel Week: Belsnickel Unmasked! 

The Next Page: Meet Belsnickel, the Counterclaus

Kallikantzari

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While Americans have their cute elves and parts of Eurpoe have the Tomten, parts of Greece must contend with dim-witted goblins called Kallikantzari.

During the year Kallikantzari are forced to live underground. Here, they spend their time sawing away at the pagan World Tree in hopes of bringing it down, forcing the earth to collapse in on itself and basically killing us and everything we know. On Christmas morning the Kallikantzari are allowed to roam the earth, distracting them from their goal of bringing about the apocalypse. For the next twelve days they spend their time scaring humans, and being general annoyances.

Greeks take various forms of precaution against encounters with the Kallikantzari. The most popular is placing a colander out on your doorstep. The goblins get distracted counting the holes in the colander, but as they cannot count above the number two, they don’t make much headway. See, Kallikantzari can only count up to two because uttering the number three, a numeral which represents the holy trinity, would result in their immediate death. In result, Kallikantzari can stand there for days counting ‘One, two…one, two…” over and over again. Did I mention they weren’t very bright?

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If a Kallikantzari does succeed in gaining entry into your home you can expect some aggravating and disgusting pranks. Putting out fires, rearranging furniture and and defecating  in any open containers of food are sure signs you are dealing with one of these creatures.

Expectant mothers have an added worry this time of year, as it is believed that any child born over the Holy Nights risks turning into a Kallikantzari. So, what did mothers do to protect their infants from this terrible fate? BURNED THEIR BABIES TOES OVER AN OPEN FIRE.

If you didn’t have a baby and the smell of burning baby-flesh to worry about you could also try to keep the Kallikantzari out of your house by hanging a pig’s jawbone over your doorway. I’m sure you can make it more festive by adding some holly or tinsel or something.

No pig parts handy? Don’t fret! You can have a wedding for some logs. Yes, I really did just say that. If you fashion a log from a male named tree, and one from a female named tree (because, of course you name your tress, right?). Next, conduct a wedding ceremony between the two logs, (if you do, please take photos and send them to me), then burn them in your fireplace. At least you don’t have to worry about the honeymoon.

Finally, on Epiphany, the Kallikantzari are forced back underground only to discover their entire year’s worth of work on the World Tree has been for naught. The tree has healed itself in their absence and they must begin their work all over again.

Resources

MacDonald, Margaret Read, The Folklore of World Holidays,  1992

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition 1912

Don’t Forget to Give Your Wood a Proper Wedding

Home Is Where The Evil Is

The Tomten is a creature from Scandinavian folklore who bears a resemblance to the more commonly known gnome. In some countries he has replaced the Yule Goat as gift bearer on Christmas night. It is believed that each home has a Tomten, who is the corporeal manifestation of the “soul” of the household. He lives among the dead in the burial mounds surrounding the home.

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The Tomten acts as a caretaker, protector and helper of the household and it’s resident children and animals. That is, if you don’t anger him.

The Tomten has quite the temper and has been known to take revenge by killing livestock and playing nasty ticks on the home’s inhabitants. His choice of vengeful acts include breaking things around the house, hiding important objects, (car keys missing?), curdling the milk and tying the cows tails together. No cows? Your shoelaces will suffice. There are even some stories of Tomten driving people insane with their tricks or biting them. Their bites, being poisonous typically lead to death, as the only cure is by supernatural means, of course.

You would be well advised to leave a gift of food out on Christmas Eve for this fellow.

Art by Astrid Lindgren

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