The Netherlands have a version of Santa Claus much like our own, with one exception: He has a sidekick. His name is Zwarte Piet, and he's the Robin to Sinterklaas' Batman. The pair arrives by boat every Christmas to hand out gifts to all good children. The bad children, however, are abducted by Zwarte Piet, who takes them back to Spain as punishment. Prior to this article, we would have laughed at the ineffectiveness of that "punishment." "Oh no, please don't take me back to a sunny and beautiful European vacation spot! I'll be good!" But now we understand the reluctance to relocate to a land where Christmas time is like living underneath a ruptured sewer line for a fortnight.
Still, could be worse
There's another problem, though. Time makes fools of us all, and what's an acceptable tradition one century can be considered monstrous the next. Zwarte Piet is no different: The Netherlands has been trying for years now to downplay the idea that Zwarte Piet is ... you know ...
There are efforts in the Netherlands to discontinue the tradition, understandably, but purists argue that Zwarte Piet is something like a chimney sweep. He's the one who goes up and down the chimney delivering presents on behalf of Sinterklaas, so it's only natural that he would be covered in soot, right? That's the only reason why white people dressed up as Zwarte Piet paint their faces black! And, uh, he has cartoonishly large lips because the soot it ... it swells them? And he has an afro wig because ... well, shit. OK, fine, he's racist.
Also, he leaves a pack of Kools beneath your pillow. Just ... uncalled for, Netherlands. Not cool.
Austria's version of Santa Claus is also pretty close to ours, except that instead of extremely racist sidekicks, Santa Claus does his rounds with an entourage of demons. First, there's Krampus, who accompanies Saint Nick as he visits your house. If you've been good that year, you get presents from Santa. If you've been bad that year, Krampus abducts you and hurls you straight into the pits of hell.
It's just another method of child-rearing, really. You have positive reinforcement, like we use in the West, where we encourage our kids to be good so they can get presents. And then you have negative reinforcement, like in Austria, where every year they tell their children that a demon sneaks into their bedrooms at night and may burn them alive for all eternity if they don't finish their goddamn vegetables this instant, Franz.
"Are these Legos on the stairs? Oh, you kids! I know somebody WHO IS GOING TO FUCKING BURN TOMORROW!"
Perchta is the slightly kinder alternative to Krampus -- though we use the word "kinder" in the Austrian sense, which only means that her horror is slightly less than the alternative. She traditionally shows up during the 12 days of Christmas, before Santa and his pet devil, to sort of pre-punish misbehaving children. Because burning in hell isn't quite enough incentive to get your homework done, apparently. Perchta won't drag you to hell, though. Her nickname is "the belly-slitter," and it's pretty much what you think: She slits open your damn belly if you've been bad.
We don't mean to pass judgment on other cultures here, but the cons seem to drastically outweigh the pros: As a child in Austria, if you've been good, you either get a firetruck and some Pokemon cards, or else something comes to your house and disembowels you. Jesus, can you at least opt out of Christmas altogether? Is there a third box to check between 'inexpensive toy' and 'tortured to death'?
Thomas Calnan also performs stand-up comedy.