“Unter Klaus, Unter Klaus, keep me safe.”
Your first Dunkelnacht. Papa helped you move your bedding but you took your favorite carved soldiers, holding them close enough to leave red spots where their edges pressed. The stone room is not as cold as the house above, but it is vastly more frightening. Down here passages cut through stone the way you cut through snowdrifts in winter. But no sun glows here, nor ever has. This is the land of the broken kobolds.
The stone room with your bed is brightly lit and the two doors have heavy bars. The buzzing scent of kerosene cuts through smoke and must. You don’t want to leave the room, but you have a task to do before you can go to bed.
Taking your papa’s glass outside you follow the rope down into darkness. You stand at the edge of the lantern light and look into the blackness, trying your best to walk forward. The kobolds are down there. Papa told you Unter Klaus would not let them get you so long as you’re a good boy, but what if you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know about? You’ve often been paddled for things you didn’t understand. When you turn your head you can see your breath clouding in the wan light.
“Unter Klaus, Unter Klaus, keep me safe!”
Squeezing the glass tight you step into the darkness, running the rope over your forearm until ten long steps in you find the spigot. The water that gushes out is icy cold and stinks terribly of metal. With all your will you force yourself to walk one foot at a time back to your room. You imagine the kobolds watching you in the dark with shining black eyes and your feet hiccup into a run. Only a little water spills.
Maulwurfstein is a small town straddling the border of Saarpfalz and Saarbrücken, themselves small districts sitting on the border of France in southwest Germany. You could say that the region has been politically active1 in much the same way that you can say that Mauna Loa is geologically active. The districts and towns have been traded back and forth between dukes and potentates for hundreds of years.
The exact date of the founding of Maulwurfstein — literally Mole Stone — is unknown, but its above-ground portions were built in the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire2. Based on markings in the underground it housed the Celts before the Roman invasion and the tunnels themselves might predate that.
The village of Maulwurfstein exists as two connected but separate towns. At one time the under town served as a way station for coal miners. The locals believed that the mines were inhabited by terrifying broken kobolds who kidnapped miners and took their place above ground in order to sire half-human children. All miners endured four days in the under town before they were allowed back into the village above.
In modern times the under town serves as a tourist attraction and cultural center. A gift shop sells locally crafted kitsch — hard candies, carved houses and kobolds and a wide variety of Unter Klaus dolls.
Every year on December 24th, Dunkelnacht festivities begin in the above town and wend their way into the tunnels and rooms below. Now there are tour guides for out-of-towners and even a couple of stone rooms to that you can rent.
A hundred and fifty years ago it was a more solemn affair. All the boys above the age of five were expected to spend the night alone in one of the family’s stone rooms.
They were given strict instructions to collect a cup of waste water, bar their room and put out all the lights. Good boys could count on Unter Klaus to protect them from the kobolds. The creatures were described in folklore as meter-high men with skin like anthracite and a ragged hole in their chest. Typical mine kobolds had a bright light where their heart would be3, but the broken kobolds had only the cavity where light had been. They whispered in the dark of the mines, even when they were being worked by miners. Only Unter Klaus could keep them at bay. Bad boys were not protected.
A good boy would find a cup of clean water where the arsenic-poisoned waste water had been. A bad boy would wake to a tug on his ankle. String tied by Unter Klaus trailed deep into the kobold tunnels. The tug meant they’d found it and were following the trail up to the secret door in the boy’s room. Once Unter Klaus tied them, the boys would be frozen in their beds and unable to light a lantern or candle. They could only wait in the dark for tiny cold hands to pull them away from home and hearth.
It was the great commercial illustrator Thomas Nast4 who fixed the popular image of Santa Claus as a figure of folklore and advertising in the American consciousness. The man invented huge swathes of visual metaphor that persist now a hundred years later. His iconic representations have remained a part of the national psyche, from Uncle Sam to the Donkey and Elephant. Before Nast drew Santa Claus, he was more likely to be seen as a lanky man in a ragged coat.
Gerhard Buell, another German immigrant, attempted to bring his childhood Christmas figure to the United States only a few years after Nast’s first Santa Claus on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. On December 20th, 1867 Buell illustrated a story for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His Unter Klaus appeared as a spidery half-man with stick-like arms and legs, long claws and the arched back of an angry cat. Unter Klaus, lit by the lantern of a terrified child, held a squirming kobold against the floor with one foot while preparing to tear its throat out. Held daintily above the fray is a cup of water.
“That is no jultomten! Why you are printing monsters for Jul?”
“When I was five, I saw Kertasníkir5 stealing the candles. This creature you have drawn is wrong.”
The story and its illustration were not popular. Shortly after publication, Buell and his three brothers returned to Germany.
With the covers pulled up tight you shutter the lantern and the room vanishes. In the dark your bedclothes shield you from the steel-eyes of the kobolds. You pull the covers over your head, but they are too warm for the stone room and soon the wet heat of your breath makes you pull them down again. Are the shapes moving within the blackness in your eyes or in the room? You rub your face and press on your eyes. The pressure makes green-purple trails through the darkness.
The fear is exhausting.
Down here, the darkness and silence are absolute. You can feel yourself floating. The emptiness becomes the surface of a lake, holding you up, drifting you. The darkness flows and drips. The sound growing louder and louder until you realize it is not a dream. It is a sound in the room with you.
“Unter Klaus, Unter Klaus, keep me safe!”
Or is that a drip? You can’t tell. It could be something tapping very slowly. There’s a terrible scraping sound from the foot of your bed.
You know where the lantern is but you do not dare reach out for it. Whatever is there in the dark might be able to see you. So you hold as still as you can.
There is a sound like crunching through ice crust on deep snow, a hiss and a rumbling laugh.
Unable to stop yourself, you reach a shaking hand for the lantern and slide back its mantle.
- See History of Saarland.
- The Holy Roman Empire: Germany, from Flags of the World.
- Britten, Emma Hardinge – Ninteenth Century Miracles Page 32.
- From the Thomas Nast portfolio at the awesome Ohio State University Cartoon Library & Museum, Santa Claus in Camp.
- The Candle Beggar, from the Icelandic tradition of Yule Lads