A terrifying Christmas tradition

The festive time of year is steeped in Old World traditions and culture. As multi-cultural as we are, many Canadian traditions and customs are based loosely on family. When I was a teenager, I remember having limited time for friends; it’s all about family. For my family, it is calm nightcaps by the fireplace playing games; a hectic Christmas morning with a frenzy of shredded paper and empty boxes flying thru the air; and a five-course meal procured by the greatest chefs of the family.

I prefer a hermit’s Christmas, with all amenities prepared and ready for mixing before the big day. The only terrifying tradition about Christmas for me is overspending. Seriously.

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I happened upon this interesting terrifying tradition well-known in many parts of Europe, most notably the Czech Republic, which involves Bertik the Devil  as wingman for Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas wears a more papal costume while Bertik the Devil fashions furs and a black devil’s face with giant black horns. The two visit children in rural communities, visit the Old Town Square of larger urban areas, and basically terrify children who have been on the naughty list this year.

The children buy into the hype, as they have for generations. Hiding under beds and leaping into their parents’ arms, they are tearful and fearful they will be thrown into the devil’s sack and taken to hell. To add insult to injury, the children must sing Bertik a limerick about his merciless punishment through sobs. It all ends well, of course, with candy and presents and the promise to be good for a whole other year. In some Germanic traditions, Krampas – a Christmas goat demon - also terrorizes naughty children.

I couldn’t help but laugh and consult (first Google) my best friend Lisa, whose father is Czech. After we had a huge laugh at the footage of Bertik the Devil I had found online, she told me what her father vaguely recalled. He can remember, at maybe seven or eight years old, their neighbour dressing as the devil near Christmas and scaring him to tears, until his father ripped off the mask revealing the man. He seemed too traumatized to remember many details. My friend said she remembered all sorts of stories that her father would tell her as a small girl. She remembers Hansel and Gretel vividly and remarked how there was always a devil or a witch in all the stories; basically a “Be good or else” learning tool parents and grandparents used to keep the wild ones under control.

I love to learn about other cultures and how their ways, although different than ours, have classical bearing on modern society. And though it may seem cruel to terrify children into good behaviour, it is easier to raise good children than to fix broken adults. On that note, be good this year. You never know who may be watching.

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