Recently I wrote about Santa Claus. Now I’m going to address a couple of related subjects — Little Red Riding Hood and grade school marijuana education courses. Bear with me.
I mentioned Santa Claus while writing about a (very good) Finnish movie called “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” It’s a Christmas-themed horror movie that draws on some of the earlier, darker Scandinavian versions of the Santa Claus legend.
My buddy Chuck (Hi Chuck!) asked a question that got me thinking. Which depiction is closer to the original stories of Santa Claus — the scary one in that movie, or the more benevolent one that dominates in America? And what do both variations of the Santa legend say about the societies that told them to their kids?
As far as I can tell from my admittedly limited research, there were two basic themes when it came to the winter visitor. You had variations on Father Christmas, Jolly Ol’ St. Nick, etc. He’s the nice guy who rewards good children.
Then you had menacing characters whose job wasn’t to reward good children, but to punish naughty ones. And we ain’t talkin’ coal in the stocking here. You had creatures like the Yule Goat, who would gore naughty children. Or the demonic Krampus, which would carry them back to its lair and eat them.
Does the fact that the former variation won out mean that we as a society go easier on our kids? Or is it because Krampus cards are unlikely to be a big seller in Hallmark stores? Maybe a little from Column A and a little from Column B.
And lest we be too judgmental of those Scandinavians from previous centuries who terrified their children with the Krampus, consider that they came from a rather inhospitable corner of the globe, climate-wise. This likely gave rise to a culture where everyone’s cooperation played a role in surviving the winters, and allowing disobedient children to run wild could result in consequences more dire than irate phone calls from neighbors.
Break out the Krampus.
And it’s not like those Scandinavians had a monopoly on cautionary tales meant to terrify children. Take a look at Little Red Riding Hood. The first printed version came out in the 17th century, but the folktale that inspired it has almost certainly been around for centuries longer. And not all the versions have a happy ending, either. In some, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood. The end.
I’ve heard the modern-day interpretations of it, based on the Jungian idea of mythological archetypes. The wolf represents the girl’s discovery of sexuality. He’s a male figure, duplicitous and dangerous as he lures her into bed. The color red is clearly an oblique reference to menstruation, which further reinforces the blah blah blah …
Want to hear my theory? The sexual undertones got added as later embellishments. And in the core story, the wolf represents — Are you ready for this? — a wolf.
These stories originated at a time when wolves were a genuine, physical threat to European villagers. And children were in particular danger of being carried off. So the adults came up with a story designed specifically to scare the crap out of kids, lest they get the idea of carelessly wandering into some potentially wolf-infested woods.
But our society doesn’t do anything like that, right? We’re civilized enough to realize that terrifying our children into obedience is wrong. Better to reason with them.
That may be true, to an extent. But I’m 45 years old, and I recall a few institutional efforts to scare the living crap out of me. For example, grade school drug education classes that informed me about marijuana’s hazards as an insidiously addicting gateway drug that would send me plummeting headlong into the dark maw of insanity and death.
I’m also old enough to have actually seen those now-legendary gore-soaked driver education films, depicting mangled corpses of unfortunates who drove carelessly.
No doubt, both educational programs were overblown. But were they wrong? Would a single toke off a joint at a party turn me into a depraved, doomed addict? No. Would violating the speed limit guarantee that I’d end up as street pizza spread across a highway somewhere? No. Were drug abuse and traffic accidents genuine safety risks for myself and other young people growing up around me? Absolutely.
So his tactics may have become more subtle, but the Krampus was evidently still around on a metaphorical level during my childhood. And I have no doubt that he’s lurking out there in one form or other today, trying to scare the kids onto the straight and narrow.
You better not shout. You better not cry.