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Liberia's Dancing Christmas Devils Could Give Krampus A Lesson In Niceness

In an image from 1964, a country devil and his attendants prepare for a procession in Lofa County, Liberia. Willie A. Whitten/Indiana University Liberian Collection hide caption

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Willie A. Whitten/Indiana University Liberian Collection

Millions of Americans are being scared by Christmas this year — the hit movie Krampus features the holiday devil of Europe, a frightening figure who wears animal skins and horns and roams the streets aiming to punish kids who have been naughty and not nice.

Believe me, I know how they feel. During my earliest years I recall Christmas as a period of sweet fun that was laced also with a high dose of fright. Yes, fright — similar to what many people feel when they watch a horror movie. Why would a child be frightened during Christmas? I hear you asking as you read these words.

A country devil from the Gio tribal group walks through a neighborhood in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, as part of the pre-independence day celebration. Claire MacDougall/for NPR hide caption

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Claire MacDougall/for NPR

Let me explain.

I wasn't afraid of Santa Claus nor any of the reindeer as I never encountered them.

No, the fear factor was reserved for the land of my birth, Liberia, where I spent most Christmas seasons until I was 9 years old. What scared the living daylights out of me were the traditional so-called dancing devils that came out during that time to dance in return for payment or gifts. They were always larger than any human beings I had ever seen. Some were as tall as 10 feet (I jest not) and some as wide as three men. (In retrospect, I think they used stilts.) They were covered in piles and piles of brown raffia straw. I say so-called as these beings have nothing to do with Judeo-Christian devils (which are influenced by European pagan beliefs, the likely source of the Krampus figure).

The Liberian dancing devil, also known as a bush devil in modern Liberian English, springs from the spiritual world of the Poro "bush" or secret societies that have long been a part of the cultural landscape of certain ethnic groups that make up present-day Liberia.

It must be stressed that in the world of the Poro, the devil figure is not evil. Instead it is a manifestation of raw spiritual power that can be used to bring order to society through the inflicting of punishments that are believed to be in the interest of the community. The devils used to dance at traditional festivals. As American settlers came to Liberia and brought their festivals, including Christmas, the devils became part of the holiday.

In addition to the dancing devils, there's Old Man Beggar, who also parades around on Christmas. At right is a Liberian version of Santa. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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John W. Poole/NPR

In addition to the dancing devils, there's Old Man Beggar, who also parades around on Christmas. At right is a Liberian version of Santa.

John W. Poole/NPR

Here the Christmas exchange was indeed turned upside down. Instead of bringing gifts for children, these "visitors" from another realm were always there to seek a gift from our family. Many children, myself included, would run for cover or hide behind an adult to seek a safe vantage point from which to play a frightening game of peek-a-boo with a devil. They came in various shapes and sizes.

Their arrival was heralded by drumming and the commotion of the entourage that followed them. And they moved. Wow! How they did move! Fast and always to the beat of the drummers, at times darting toward someone in the gathered crowd. They were indeed awesome in the literal sense of the world.

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To the young child that I was, the dancing seemed to go on for an eternity, but I realize now that the dancing Kpelle devils I saw up close as a youngster — from Liberia's Kpelle ethnic group — could not have paraded more than 10 or 15 minutes in our front yard in Bong County. After all, they had to go door to door to collect their bounty, which could include cold beers for the musicians and cash for the dancing devil (collected by a member of the entourage who worked the crowd with a turned-over raffia hat or a side bag).

I was fascinated and frightened at the same time. But other youngsters, boys not much older than myself, skillfully and colorfully appropriated elements of this tradition and created their own copies of a modern version of the Christmas country devil. They dressed as a character called Old Man Beggar — wearing patched-up human clothes — and went around during Christmastime asking for money and sweets.

As I entered my teens, I realized there was nothing to fear from these dancing devils, who are merely out to entertain for reward.

A Liberian culture group arrives at Zwedru City Hall in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. Staton Winter/UNMIL hide caption

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Staton Winter/UNMIL

The custom is yet another example of how African traditions have mingled with global Western traditions across the continent. Sometimes the result is an imported custom, like the plastic Christmas trees that can be spotted in some African homes today. But this is a custom in which the dancer is always dancing to the beat of an African drummer and carrying out a tradition that is 100 percent African and playing a role within society that remains as vibrant as ever.

Where in the West would you ever have a situation where Santa turns up during Christmas week with a mob of rowdy musicians in tow, knocks loudly on your front door, says "My Christmas is on you," dances a quick Nordic jig and then sticks his hand out and waits for his "dash" — his holiday tip?

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Max Bankole Jarrett is a former international radio broadcaster (BBC World Service 1990-2001), writer and analyst. He is presently deputy director of Kofi Annan's Africa Progress Panel.