Welcome to Jul Fest 2020!
I am excited to be offering some brief glimpses into the important winter season traditions from the Northern European immigrant communities that surround me here in Minnesota.
Minnesota is a unique place. Our first wave of immigrant communities from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland...well, you get the idea, came in very large numbers and settled together in cultural and family groups. They created institutions for cultural preservation, education, and fiscal fraternity that are still incredibly strong 150 years along. Each culture brings with it very special folk traditions and beliefs, especially around the darkest, coldest part of the year.
The Northern parts of Europe are very similar to Minnesota with weather, flora, fauna, and seasonally affected mental, physical and spiritual needs. The traditions of the seasonal changes they brought with them not only made sense here but gave the immigrants necessary grounding and stability in a new land. And because we are in a new land, we have invited others to join in our traditions no matter what their culture of origin might have been!
We begin the season with Austrian/German tradition and the duo of Krampus (December 5) and Saint Nicolas (December 6). Germanic/Norse cultures tend to be "balanced by extremes" as the Winter Side of the year is dark and cold, contracting inward. Animals are brought indoors and the wildness of everything outside of the town gates press upon us. This duality is clearly seen as Krampus represents those wild, wicked, and unholy forces where St. Nicolas represents the good, safe, and holy forces. Krampus will punish those (especially children) who are lazy and unproductive. St. Nicolas will reward the industrious and virtuous.
Think about how important it would have been in the times before electricity, before communication and transportation systems that could save a village from the perils of darkness, freezing temperatures, and isolation. One un-attended candle could bring a whole town down in flames. Not getting our spinning and weaving done could mean frozen limbs and loss of life. Not getting the grain in and the animals slaughtered and processed could mean starvation. It is no wonder that so many of the old winter traditions contain a very serious side to them.
Our modern traditions focus only on the light, on consumerism, on excess. Most of us are disconnected from the hard reality of homelessness and lack in a northern winter. This year is different. In this year of job losses, evictions, hospitalizations, grief, and uncertainty, it is especially important for us to connect with ancestral traditions that look these realities in the face, name them, and ritualize overcoming them. To me, the duality of Krampus and St. Nicolas has never made more sense than it does in this moment. This Jul Fest, I will be tracing this dualism and ritual surrounding the fears of the dark side of the year through the Northern European immigrant cultures that I grew up with in Minnesota. I hope their stories, songs, imagery, and rituals deepen your roots, ground you, and support you as we go through the long dark winter alone, together.