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It’s a Cruel Yule: St. John's artisan explores the darker side of Christmas traditions

A detail from "Gryla," a sculpture representing an evil Icelandic ogress, by artisan Janet Peter.
A detail from “Gryla,” a sculpture of an evil Icelandic ogress.

Janet Peter's creatures featured in her new solo exhibit

Christmas. Some of us regale our children with tales of Santa Claus and reindeer; some of us tell stories of a half-goat, half-demon who punishes misbehaving kids, or a cat that eats those who don’t wear their new holiday outfits. 

“Krampus” is a German/Austrian half-goat who punishes wicked children. — Tara Bradbury/The Telegram
“Krampus” is a German/Austrian half-goat who punishes wicked children. — Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

It’s the darker, weirder pieces of Christmas folklore that local artist Janet Peter wanted to explore with “It’s A Cruel Yule,” her new exhibit at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador’s gallery in St. John’s.

Peter’s no stranger to the topic: an Ontario-born, St. John’s-based artisan, she made her first mummer ornament 20 years ago, after feeling inspired by the stories her friends would tell of the local Christmas tradition.

Mummers have become one of Peter’s trademarks, but for “It’s a Cruel Yule,” she went further afield, delving into other Celtic, Nordic and Germanic traditions for a series of 12 felt sculptures.

It started with an article in the Toronto Star, Peter says.

“It was talking about odd Christmas folklore from different parts of the world. I never did anything with it at the time, but it was always something that was in the back of my mind.”

Seeing some interesting stories courtesy of Twitter’s #FolkloreThursday hashtag, Peter began reading and researching folklore from around the globe, taking a particular interest in Christmas traditions.

She began her sculptures about a year ago, investigating some of the mythical and often creepy characters associated with pre-Victorian Christmas celebrations, and executing her interpretations of them in felt.

Peter has used felted fabric, yarn, papier maché and other media to create her stunningly detailed pieces, using a barbed needle to hand-felt intricate faces.

There’s “Krampus”, of course: a German/Austrian half-goat who punishes wicked children. Peter has given him gnarly teeth, empty white eyes, matted fur, and several distressed children falling out of a tattered sack in his hands.

“Yule Lad” is a little troll who comes out at Christmas and licks spoons for no reason.
“Yule Lad” is a little troll who comes out at Christmas and licks spoons for no reason.

There’s “Frau Gaude”, an evil German witch who roams the streets during Christmastime accompanied by her devil dogs. If you open your door to her and the dogs get inside your home, there’s no getting them out. Peter has given “Frau Gaude” a sexy look, with deep-cut dress, long, wispy hair, and red lips and fingernails.

There’s also “Cailleach”, an Irish/Scottish goddess of winter, also sometimes known as the carrier of storms and darkness; “La Befana”, an Italian benevolent figure; and the Icelandic “Yule Cat”, which will eat you if it captures you not wearing your new Christmas clothes.

“Yule Lad “is another Icelandic character, and though he may be destructive — a little troll who comes out at Christmas and licks spoons for no reason — Peter’s version is playful and cute, with tongue poised.

“Iceland is rich with weirdness,” Peter says, laughing, about the tales she found the most interesting.

Her favourite of the 12 sculptures is “Gryla”, evil Icelandic ogress, mother of yule lads, companion of Yule Cat.

“She kidnaps and eats children,” Peter explains. “I don’t know if it’s a fair representation of her if you lived in Iceland, but I wanted to take the stories and make them my own, give my own interpretation of them. I had a lot of fun.”

Peter’s “Gryla” hides her deviousness, leaning on her walking stick and looking like someone’s sweet grandma until closer inspected.

“Gryla”, evil Icelandic ogress, mother of yule lads, companion of Yule Cat.
“Gryla”, evil Icelandic ogress, mother of yule lads, companion of Yule Cat.

The show, which opened Nov. 23, has seen incredible success already, with 75 per cent of Peter’s pieces already sold. “Krampus” was bought three days before the exhibit even opened, after a visitor to the gallery snuck under the rope to have a closer look and fell in love on the spot.

Peter has created a series of small hanging ornament versions of some of her characters, which are also available for purchase.

“The show brings together the whole other side of Christmastime that might have been forgotten,” says gallery director Bruno Vinhas.

“Thinking about the dark side of Christmas in Nordic, German and Anglo-Saxon culture is displaying a side of human nature that we all tend to forget during the holiday season. Janet managed to capture these traditions with an exquisite technique and beauty. The gallery couldn’t have asked for a better show to end the year.”

“It’s A Cruel Yule” will run at the Craft Council gallery, 275 Duckworth St. in St. John’s, until Dec. 23.

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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