Christmas Can Be Merry And Bright… And Creepy
It is absolutely fine — completely understandable, in fact — if someone does not feel all bright and bubbly just because it is the holiday season, says Jeff Belanger.
Belanger, who lived his formative years in Sandy Hook, knows that some of the oldest traditions surrounding Christmas date back centuries. Many of those traditions have very dark starting points, he has learned in recent years.
Thinking about stringing up some cranberries and popcorn to hang as garland on your tree? Most would reconsider after the root of that tradition is explained.
Planning on singing some Christmas carols? May want to double check a song’s original meaning first. The very popular “Jingle Bells,” he says, was not only not written as a Christmas song, but it is in fact a song about sex.
Belanger is bringing back the tradition of scary stories during the Christmas season, thanks to a program he researched and wrote called “New England Legends: A Creepy Christmas Special.” He does it with humor, however, and even offers hope before the end of each hour-long presentation.
It is all perfect material for the 46-year-old, who has built a career looking into the paranormal and sharing his findings through myriad forms of media. His day job is working on Ghost Adventures for Travel Channel.
The 1992 Newtown High School graduate now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and their daughter, but he still feels very connected to the town. He continued to return on college breaks until his graduation from Hofstra University in 1996, and then lived here another two years after that. His sister and uncle still live in Newtown. His parents moved away only two years ago.
(The Sandy Hook Elementary School alumnus noted early in his local broadcast of “Creepy Christmas Special” that he was aware of the significance of December 14, the night his program was scheduled locally.)
In addition to the Travel Channel work, Belanger has carved himself a career that weaves together research, writing, podcasts, and travel. He has written 16 books to date, all focusing on different paranormal topics, for young reader to adult audiences.
“I am truly blessed that I get to look into and write about all things weird and wonderful,” he said. “The Travel Channel work really helps cover my bases. Books and doing programs, and everything else though, it’s a good living. I’m thrilled to be able to do this, and love what I do.”
His next, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds, is a departure from his writing history. Due in March, the 224-page hardcover memoir follows the amateur hiker’s journey to one of the world’s most famous summits.
In recent months, the writer has been doing a lot of online programs. “New England Legends: Creepy Halloween” was a big hit two months ago, followed more recently by “Creepy Christmas.”
Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury hosted both, although thanks to the popularity of online programs this year, Belanger was also able to easily present them to audiences across New England. Since COVID lockdowns began in earnest, he said, he has done 70-plus programs online.
“I miss doing it in person, I really do. Zoom is the next best thing,” Belanger said a few days ahead of Minor Library’s December 14 presentation.
“The whole program is about taking Christmas apart, into its original pieces, and showing how it comes from many different lands, different cultures, and different religions,” he added. “There are a lot of tales of lore, and ghost stories, and all that wonderful stuff.”
Belanger is always quick to note that his creepy holiday programs are not meant for children. “Creepy Christmas” is not a 60-minute all things bright and beautiful event.
Halloween, he said, is just ghosts and spirits that do not necessarily cause bodily harm.
“But the stuff about Christmas? They’re things that are coming for you, and they can kill you,” he continued. “Krampus? He picks up children, and cooks them, and eats them, and they’re dead,” he said, referring to legendary European figure.
Speaking with The Newtown Bee on December 11, Belanger further pointed out that it is not uncommon for people to wonder why they are not as happy as they think they should be in the days ahead of Christmas.
“I think things have gotten too commercial, the gifts, high expectations that the day is supposed to be happy, and gifts that are too wrong, and family, and it can be stressful,” he said. “And then you worry that something’s wrong because you’re not happy.”
Most Christmas customs are based off the darkest days of the year. The lynchpin to all of this, he said, is the winter solstice.
“You look out and you see that the sun is hardly up at all. The night is long, the day is short, and you’re afraid: Will the sun come back? Will I have enough food? Will my roof hold up? Will I die?” he said.
Acknowledging that modern conveniences make winter more tolerable for most, the researcher contends that winter is still not a time of very active living.
“We really live through three seasons, and then we hibernate in the winter,” he said. “Winter has lost some of its bite, with indoor heating and cable TV, but 100 years ago, 200 years? Winter was scary.”
Nature itself plays a role in the season’s sinister sound. Winter winds sound more sinister than their summer counterparts, he pointed out.
A few nights later, addressing those who registered for his program, he played a clip of a howling wind. Listeners could feel just how bone-chilling it would be to be outdoors in such a sound.
“Do you hear that? You hear it, right? What is that?” he challenged.
“You may say that’s just the wind, but the wind doesn’t sound like that in the spring, the summer, or the fall,” he continued. “It doesn’t. It sounds scary right now. Is that ‘just the wind’ or is that the vanquished cries, the screams of horror of the Norse god Odin and his vanquished enemies?”
Belanger used a dual-screen presentation during “Creepy Christmas Special,” allowing viewers to continually watch his expressions and mannerisms on the right half of the screen, while photos and videos were displayed on the left half.
“Odin,” he pointed out, while a photo of what he was describing appeared on screen, “rides through the sky. He’s got a big white beard and he rides on a horse with eight legs, flying through the sky.
“White beard. Eight. Flying. I don’t know,” Belanger said, smiling slightly. “That may seem important later. I’m not sure.”
The origins of “Creepy Christmas Customs” happened a few years ago. Belanger was hanging a wreath on the front door of his home and was not having a great day, he told The Newtown Bee.
“I was really busy, it was early December, and putting up lights was such a chore,” he said. “I started thinking ‘Why all this? Why lights? Why the evergreen? Why a wreath?’
“I’m the kind of person who has to find the answers to these things,” he said, laughing. The researcher in him kicked in, he added.
“It led to a dark place,” he said. “I started to uncover really spooky things that are associated with this time of the year.”
That research led to “Creepy Christmas Special,” which touches upon Tomtens, or helper elves; St Nicholas; Yule celebrations, including Yule logs; Saturnalia, and more. They are legendary, all of them, and Belanger celebrates each of them, tying many to contemporary figures like Christmas gnomes and The Grinch.
So, how did these monsters disappear from popular culture?
Belanger sees a few key moments in history that started pushing many of the darker elements of the season into the shadows. The first was the publication in 1823 of Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St Nicholas.”
“That poem,” he said, “introduced flying reindeer, landing on a rooftop, and Santa going down the chimney.”
The addition of illustrations by Thomas Nast in subsequent years further increased the modern look. Nast’s work featured the white fur-lined red suit and a figure who grew in stature from a traditional sized elf who stood on a chair to reach a mantel to the adult male known today, he noted.
Coca-Cola further changed, and solidified, the illustration of Santa. In 1931, following the Great Depression, Belanger said, Coca-Cola began using the updated Santa Claus “and said ‘Let’s use him to sell Coke,’” he said. “And it worked.”
The following year, once other businesses realized Coca-Cola did not own that image of Santa Claus, according to Belanger, “Christmas became a time when people felt they needed to spend a lot of money.” Retailers capitalized on that momentum, doing what they could to get their budgets into the black, while the public believed that spending would make them feel good again.
“Retailers began pushing the scary stuff into the shadows,” Belanger said. “That’s when it all went commercial, and we see all the pressure to make things bright and perfect.”
Feature films in recent years are bringing some of the tradition — the real traditions, he said — back to the forefront.
“In Christmas Chronicles 2, just released on Netflix, Belsnickle and Yule Cat are both featured,” he noted.
“They’re coming back,” he said. “They really are. Maybe a good scare is all you need.”
At least 108 viewers registered, and many of the screens showed two or more people during the recent program. It was a very popular offering that also touched upon Père Fouettard, the location of New England’s first indoor decorated Christmas tree, the dirty backstory of the song “Jingle Bells,” and why it makes sense that Jesus has not remained a large part of most holiday presentations.
“He’s not a big part of this story,” Belanger said, “and I mean no offense by this.”
There Is Hope
Belanger did not leave the program entirely on a negative note. There is hope, he promised. The season is one of redemption, even if it does come from one of the most famous ghost stories ever written.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he pointed out, is “a masterpiece about four ghosts.”
It took two decades between its release in 1843 and the first public performance in America by its writer — a note also defined by Belanger — but that frightening story is another marker that generations have pinned their hopes on. That story, he said, “defines for many what Christmas should be.
“We can change,” Belanger said. “Scrooge is us. Scrooge is me. But we can all start fresh on Christmas Day.
“That,” he said, “is where we can find hope.”
While he has done the presentations repeatedly, they feel fresh and new. Belanger has done his research and knows the material, but he does not sound rehearsed. Appropriately, he sounds like an excited researcher eager to share his findings. He covers a lot of material at a very good pace, and with great segues.
And the legend of the holiday wreath that started all of this?
Belanger shared the answer to that as well. With so many questions, Belanger could not stop thinking about the wreath and its reasoning.
“I went down a rabbit hole, and I made some amazing discoveries,” he shared. Winter, he later pointed out, kills everything.
“It kills the grass, it kills the flowers, it kills the bugs, and the trees that had all these green leaves in the summer, they turned brown and they died and they fell off, and now they just look like skeletons,” he said. Lakes and ponds have frozen solid. “Everything is dead. It is frightening,” he added.
There is just one tree that holds up to winter, he said, introducing the evergreen.
“What’s different about this, compared to all the others?” he challenged. “It’s stronger than winter. There must be magic in it.”
Belanger went on to explain the idea of cutting down evergreens, and placing their branches in front of windows and on doors, “to keep the bad spirits out, and keep the good cheer inside.
“When I put up my Christmas wreath now, it’s not just tradition,” he said. “It has a real meaning.”