It is darkest before the dawn.
After December 21, the light begins its inevitable return, and the days grow longer. The mid-December solstice marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and brings the shortest day ~ and the longest night ~ of the year. For those of us on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice occurs at 11:48 PM on December 21 (though officially it happens the day following). And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.
Such precision we have about the solstice these days. No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice as a turning point, the day that marks the return of the sun.
One delightful little book written in 1948, 4,000 Years of Christmas, puts its theory right up in the title.
The Mesopotamians were first, it claims, with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. (If only we could.)
Shall we liken Christmas to the web in a loom? There are many weavers, who work into the pattern the experience of their lives. When one generation goes, another comes to take up the weft where it has been dropped. The pattern changes as the mind changes, yet never begins quite anew. At first, we are not sure that we discern the pattern, but at last we see that, unknown to the weavers themselves, something has taken shape before our eyes, and that they have made something very beautiful, something which compels our understanding.
-Earl W. Count, 4,000 Years of Christmas
Other than the few facts above, and the annual reminders about the winter solstice, I must admit I know little else. That’s why I read the NYT science section and listen to the NPR Science Friday podcast. And head to MentalFloss (everything you want to know about the solstice in bullets with photos). The journalists and guests demystify why apples fall and how echolocation works. And what’s with those brain waves, anyway? They assume the reader/listener knows nothing. (A fine assumption, in my case. I am not offended.) Great minds explain a concept in clear language. And they could fit it on the back of a cocktail napkin. Triplicity of excellence.
But you most likely won’t hear about Krampus from Ira Flatow or James Gorman. Sometimes you just need Jimmy Fallon. Krampus is another December curiosity I know little about. Mythical, but intriguing. (No, it’s not another presidential candidate joining the fray.)
In some communities in Bavaria and Austria, the hideous Krampus is long believed to represent the dark side of St. Nick. This is no elf on the shelf, people.
Traditionally, the Krampus is shown with reddened deep-set malicious eyes, large goat horns, a furry body, long pointed tongue and teeth, cloven hooves and a tail, carrying rusty chains and birch switches he uses to swat evil-doers.
This mythical monster was thought to accompany St. Nick, who is obliged to hand over particularly incorrigible children to Krampus.
Some towns have a “Krampuslauf” during which costumed, torch-bearing revel-devils run through the streets, scaring children and adults alike. Lately, Krampus is beginning to appear in Christmas festivities in France and Finland, and even in the US. Krampus has received a little more attention than usual with the release of the holiday horror-comedy film “Krampus.” (Spoiler alert: It’s downright terrifying.)