Like most people, I thought of it as a bird that provides us with meat and eggs but not much else. But when I started to dig into it, I discovered that the chicken has actually played more roles across human history, in more societies, than any other animal, and I include the dog and the cat and cows and pigs. The chicken is a kind of a zelig of human history, which pops up in all kinds of different societies.
If you go back to ancient Babylon, about 800 B.C., in what is now Iraq, you find seals used by people to identify themselves. Some of these have images of chickens sitting on top of columns being worshipped by priests. That expanded with the Persian Empire. Zoroastrians considered the chicken sacred because it crowed before dawn, before the light appeared. And in Zoroastrian tradition, the coming of the light is a sign of good. So the chicken became associated with an awakening from physical, as well as spiritual, slumber.
Some languages — namely, English — act as a hub for the world. And others like French, German, and Spanish serve as the hubs of other language families.
There are a few takeaways here. If you want your kids to be able to interact with large swathes of the world, teach them Spanish. But if you want them to be able to correspond with a more secluded group, go for Chinese.
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.
Over the course of many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).
Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word krampen, which means claw, is said to be the son of Hel, who rules the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Krampus also shares characteristics with demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Austria and southern Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December.
“It’s really a pagan character which gets added onto Christmas, and stays in the Catholic countries,” said Peter Jelavich, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.
Krampus is a counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewards children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, swats “wicked” children with birch sticks and takes them to his lair.
According to folklore, Krampus shows up the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 is Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod or twigs (for bad behavior).
Also, I hope everyone had a great holiday season!