Photo: Frank C. Grace / Contributed Photo
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ROXBURY — When Jeff Belanger speaks, people listen, often in a very rapt, finger-biting manner.
Belanger is a natural storyteller, an award-winning Emmy-nominated host, a writer, and producer of the fabulously entertaining “New England Legends.” Oh yes, he’s also authored over a dozen books, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, explored the ruins of Machu Pichu in Peru, walked the catacombs in Paris, and been hunting, and meeting ghosts all over the world.
The Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury will present Belanger’s “New England Legends, Creepy Christmas Special” on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. on Zoom. The library says Belanger’s presentation is sure to “bring the spooky back to the yuletide time of year.”
Belanger will discuss the origins of monsters like Krampus, the Belsnickel, and Gryla, as well as ghosts that “lurk in the red and green shadows.” The program, he admits, is definitely not suitable for young children.
“The soft drink company Coca Cola gave us the modern version of Santa Claus as the jolly old elf back in the 1930s,” said Belanger, “and that image has been embellished with all sorts of things, such as worker elves, reindeer and the workshop at the North Pole. But beyond Santa Claus and other modern traditions, the countries of northern Europe are filled with old stories of holiday monsters that would scare young children into behaving around Christmastime each year.”
“Winter was a time to be scared of at one time,” he said. “The days of spring, summer and fall were gone and people just didn’t know if they would make it through a tough winter, whether it was having enough food or being able to keep your home upright after a big snowstorm. It is a dark time of year and at one time a reason for many people to be truly afraid.”
Belanger said many rituals we take for granted at this time of year, such as decking the halls with wreaths and evergreens, had their origins in northern European and other countries.
“People would place wreaths of evergreens over their doors and their windows to keep the evil spirits away during winter. Why? Because the only trees that didn’t lose their leaves and become barren were evergreens, so it was natural for people to view those trees as having special powers that could keep them safe,” Belanger said.
Belanger began studying the scary side of Christmastime about five years ago. “Once I started, I just fell into the rabbit hole,” he said. “There are so many tales of monsters and spirits that come around during winter that it was fascinating to learn about them all.”
One of the most notable of the “anti-Santa Clauses”, born from the real Saint Nicholas, is Krampus. In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon”, who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved. Krampus is actually one of the companions of Saint Nicholas in several central European regions. Some experts believe the tale of the Krampus has pre-Christian origins.
Belsnickel is said to be a mean, fur-clad Christmas bringer of gifts in Germanic folklore. The figure is also preserved in tales among Pennsylvania’s Dutch communities in the United States and in Brazilian-German communities. Gryla is a female giant “with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children.” There are other scary figures, such as the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat, but we don’t want to spoil the fun.
Christmas is, of course, a deeply religious holiday for Christians and a time of gift giving and being with family and friends. Charles Dickens brought mainstream America his own scary version of Christmas, “A Christmas Carol,” in which the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future scare Ebenezer Scrooge into repenting his miserly ways and joining the joyful festivities of the holiday with a new-found generosity and compassion for his fellow man. Who among us as children didn’t shudder when Scrooge was shown his grave by the Ghost of Christmas Future?
“Dickens brought his story all over the world and it became something everyone could relate to,” said Belanger. “It was a story of redemption and realizing past wrongs, and it was taught to Scrooge by a ghost. Slowly, Christmas became a national holiday that was celebrated worldwide, and it was through people like Dickens and Coca Cola giving us their version of the Santa Claus myth that we know now, that coalesced people’s opinion of the holiday,” in both a religious and secular fashion, he said.
Belanger knows about ghosts. He founded www.Ghostvillage.com in 1999 — one of the Internet’s most popular paranormal destinations, and he’s a noted speaker and media personality, providing dozens of live lectures and programs to audiences each year. He has served as the writer and researcher on numerous television series, including every episode of “Ghost Adventures,” “Paranormal Challenge,” and “Aftershocks” on the Travel Channel, and “Amish Haunting” on Destination America. He’s also been a guest on hundreds of radio and television networks and programs.
“In the ghost world, Jeff Belanger is a rock star…and he’s officially a fan favorite at the Torrington Library,” said Jessica Gueniat, director of the Torrington Library, after his visit there a few years ago. “Jeff was funny, engaging and charismatic as he delved into the unknown. His personal experiences along with well researched stories of paranormal events and places struck a chord with the audience. He spent a generous amount of time after the presentation talking to people individually, taking photos, and signing books. I would recommend him for large audiences, small audiences, and all those in between any time of the year.”
What Belanger hopes for those who take part in the Minor Memorial Library event is a deeper appreciation of Christmas in its many forms, and a new knowledge of folklore that has been lost, to some degree, over the centuries.
“I’ve been honing the presentation over the years and I try and break down everything people think about Christmas and build it back up. If you are a devout Christian you will still be one when I’m done with you. But I want everyone to understand the many influences on the yuletide as we know it.”
There is no charge for this program, but registration is required. RSVP online at www.minormemoriallibrary.org to receive the Zoom link, call the library at 860-350-2181, or visit www.minormemoriallibrary.org for more information.
Also visit www.jeffbelanger.com.