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The Fright Before Christmas, by Jeff Belanger

The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters, Witches, and Ghosts, by Jeff Belanger and illustrated by Terry Reed
New Page Books, 1637480156, 200 pages, September 2023

I absolutely love the Yuletide season; I proudly consider myself a Christmas witch. There’s such a potency of magic in the air, especially during the darkest nights of the year. But as I’ve grown in my spirituality, embracing the darker side too, I’ve come to learn there’s much more than the glistening of lights, merry festivities, and myths of jolly Santa; there’s a twisted, rebellious side to the season as well. The Fright Before Christmas: Surviving Krampus and Other Yuletide Monsters, Witches, and Ghosts by Jeff Belanger brings the shadow realm of Christmas to the forefront, inviting readers to learn more about the underbelly hidden beneath the glitz.

As the Emmy-nominated host, writer, and producer of the New England Legend series and podcast, Belanger is the perfect guide for a reader’s journey into the hidden characters of Christmas. He is a natural storyteller with a knack for quips at the right time, leaving one chuckling with wicked delight. During a moment of exasperation in hanging his wreath, Belanger started to question the “why” of the Christmas season, leading him “down a dark and sinister rabbit hole”1 of research into tales of monsters that punish, spank, and sometimes, even eat, the naughty.

Before launching into these tales of Christmas horror, Belganer firmly roots the reader in the history of the yuletide season. Beginning with the Winter Solstice, he paints a picture of how this season of cold weather and little light is good cause for fear. We forget in the modern era just how deadly the winter months can be, everyday a fine line between survival and demise.

Despite the harrowing weather conditions, the Christmas season for centuries has been a time of celebration, debauchery, and merrymaking. Belanger invites readers to the party as he describes Romans dressing up for Saturnalia, the Norse hanging their evergreen branches, English workers wassailing, and more! While the common theme seems to be heavy drinking and revelry, Belganer does a wonderful job describing how the traditions of times past have contributed to aspects of our current Christmas season.

And what a cast of characters you’ll meet in this book! From my personal favorite La Befana, who might clean your house for you, to the dashing beast Mari Lwyd tryin to catch stray souls, to murderous Père Fouettard, there’s no telling what you might encounter as the nights grow long this holiday season. Did I mention there’s also mischievous elves and killer cats too?

There’s even plenty of information about the gory bits of Christian history too, including St. Nicholas’s backstory and feat of reviving butchered children from the dead. Try telling that to some of your more religious family members! Oh wait, I did bring it up at dinner after reading that story in the book, and they all stared at me incredulous, wondering if I had made this up. Definitely some good tidbits of information in this book to pass along!

One thing that I found very interesting is how many of these monsters are making a revival thanks to the internet. For decades, even centuries, much of this monster folklore was confined to the countries of origin. While the characteristics of the monster are still situated in the culture of their origin, as these tales continue to spread, inevitably, these monsters too will adapt to modern times, even in different regions.

For instance, Krampus, who has a very long historical past, including the church trying to eradicate him in the 13th century, became popular again in the 1800s in “Austria, Bavaria, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.”2 Until around 2000 when the tale of Krampus started to spread online, this folklore remained primarily in these regions.

Now Krampus has become a popular folk figure worldwide, and I’ve had the chance to participate in quite a few events in his honor! Last year, there was a photoshoot with Krampus at Scarehouse in Pennsylvania, the annual Krampus festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the Parade of Spirits in honor of Krampus in Philadelphia. Clearly, my area has been influenced by the Krampus tradition; just Googling “Krampus events” I can see quite a few lined up for this year already!

One more thing to note about The Fright Before Christmas is the design! The book is a hardback cover with one of those built-in bookmarks for added convenience. Illustrator Terry Reed has done a great job depicting each monster so that readers have a visual. Plus there’s tons of authentic vintage visuals (postcards, advertisements, photographs, etc) showcasing what Belanger is describing in the text. It would be a perfect book for a coffee table or as a fun gift for a pollyanna!

All in all, this book is a perfect mixture of delight and horror, history and lore. Belanger gives life to the monsters of Christmas, providing readers with a new perspective on the traditions we enact each year. After reading The Fright Before Christmas, you’re bound to be one of the  most interesting people to chat with this holiday season as you regal others with facts about the hidden origin of Christmas traditions. And given that you’re now aware to face these monsters, probably also the person most likely to survive the winter!

For those who like myself feel a connection to these monsters, I have great news: there’s a kickstarter for Yuletide Monsters Oracle Deck! Currently the estimated delivery is December 2023, so if you make a pledge, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to do some spooky Christmas divination. According to the kickstarter, this “40-card oracle draws on the traditional structure of tarot, the  efficiency of the Sicilian Scopa Deck, and the whimsy of an Oracle deck.”3 How cool! 😀

Confessions of an Egyptologist, by Erich von Daniken

Confessions of an Egyptologist: Lost Libraries, Vanished Labyrinths & the Astonishing Truth Under the Saqqara Pyramids, by Erich von Daniken
New Page Books, 1632651912, 208 pages, September 2021

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like Egypt holds all the secrets to the Universe? It’s easy to get lost in the ancient history of such a vast, expansive empire. I had previously read Erich von Daniken’s book Chariots of the Gods, and was curious what other hidden history might be revealed in Confessions of an Egyptologist: Lost Libraries, Vanished Labyrinths, & the Astonishing Truth Under the Saqqara Pyramids.

The book starts off with a very violent act of terrorism, but this sets the stage for the story of Adel H. to unfold, who was tragically murdered in the rampage. When the company Adel was working for needed a guide for von Daniken’s group, Adel volunteered, despite von Daniken’s notoriety for asserting his own information. Adel had read von Daniken’s work and was eager to have the opportunity to speak with him, sparking a decade-long friendship.

Throughout their relationship, Adel shares tons of insider information, having come from a family of grave robbers, with von Daniken. Confession of an Egyptologist‘s  primary focus is on one particular experience that Adel had in the Saqqara Pyramids, which changed his life forever and reveals fascinating information about what might still be hidden beneath the pyramids.

Adel had claimed that his family knew of underground structures that dated back even further than we could comprehend – tens of thousands of years at least. This sparked von Daniken’s interest, as he had written about books written longer than 2,000 years ago hidden in underground labyrinths. His own knowledge, plus what Adel shared sparked von Daniken’s curiosity.

“And I could help but wonder under which deserts, settlements, or sanctuaries these labyrinths must be hidden. Where were these lost, underground worlds from distant times? Had they been excavated and then covered up again? If so, by whom? Had these long-forgotten structures become inaccessible due to natural disasters?

And where are the millions of books that were written in the distant past? Were they burned? Damaged? Deliberately destroyed? And if so, again, why? Is the little that we see today all that there is? Or do secret libraries exist, accessible only to hooded guards or members of obscured orders? Who actually had an interest in writing, hoarding, and then hiding books for millenia? Who wanted to make these books disappear again?”1

Suddenly, I became curious about these questions, right along with von Daniken, and this made me eager to continue reading. It is of von Daniken’s opinion that the Egyptians hid these books because they feared a flood. However, humanity has also proven to be just as destructive of knowledge, from Caesar trying to burn down the Great Library of Alexandria to Pope Gregory IX burning Jewish books in the Talmud burning. (For more on the topic of book burning, I highly recommend Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden, which I’ve been reading this week too.)

As the different theories of why books would be hidden and where they might be, different theories come up between Adel and von Daniken based on their cumulative knowledge. One that was especially interesting was the concept of books being inscribed in precious stones hidden in the artwork on the underground walls. Von Daniken brought up the ancient text The Life of Adam and Eve, which describes how Adam learned how to communicate with a sapphire stone and learned all about astronomy and the earthly calendar.2 Adel had his own experience related to this:

“I saw a sculpture of the goddess Hathor carved into the wall in addition to the strange, tubular objects I described before. Between her eyes, in the middle of her forehead, was something like a precious stone. I clearly remember the indescribable awe I felt that prevented me from prying out the stone.”3

Is it possible that precious stones can communicate knowledge spanning millennia? If so, this would point to an advanced technology of the Egyptians, which might be hard to explain for some, but not for von Daniken. He asserts time is relative, and in both the past and present Earth has had visitors from the skies. Citing multiple witnesses of UFOs, von Dankien ultimately concludes the extraterrestrial intelligence that has come before is now present again on earth. 

To be honest, this felt like a stretch to me, but it was an intriguing concept nevertheless. I just wish it had been substantiated a little better than the assortment of testimonies von Daniken put together, leading to a kind of smorgasbord of ideas trying to pass as a credible theory. So while I wasn’t sold on the ultimately conclusion about alien life present on Earth, I did enjoy another focus of the book: the search for historical labyrinths and the experience Adel confided in von Daniken.

Before proceeding to discuss my thoughts on that content, it’s worth noting that the greatest flaw in the book is the lack of organization and skipping from one subject to the next without any clarity about how they are related. It feels like there could be some loose, easily broken thread connecting the different topics covered, but the book lacked a strong thesis, which made it hard for me to follow along with how one part of the book led to another. It felt like a mis-mash of information, which is often what makes me dubious of the veracity of the content.

As mentioned, the highlight of the book was Adel’s personal story of being stuck in the underground labyrinth of the Saqqara pyramids. While accompanying his father and uncle in a grave robbing expedition, he ended up getting stuck in the pyramid when a rock blocked his path back out.

Noticing a stairway that led downward led to mystical experience for him, filled with intimate relationships with a beautiful young woman and discovery of a mechanical throne, possibly linked to King Solomon’s. He was able to survive and escape with the help of a falcon that guided him to an exit. This is a quick summary, and his experience is recounted in much more detail by von Daniken, but it sounds incredible. It makes one wonder about what’s hidden in the unexplored tunnels underneath the pyramids.

Overall, I got some entertainment from reading Confessions of an Egyptologist. It was interesting to imagine the scenery and experiences of Adel, and I did learn some new information about Egypt from von Daniken. Just like many “conspiracy theory”-esque or outlandish ideas, the book has enough factual information to make it seem plausible, but it is simultaneously riddled with loopholes of confusion and inconsistency. So while I am not full subscribing to the tenets of the book, I am at least glad that I read it for consideration.