Say hello to Krampus
My mother Face-Timed me yesterday, rather upset, to say she had received a “very disturbing” Christmas card from my sister. It showed a sleigh and children but instead of Santa there was a jet-black, horned and cloven-hoofed demon driving. Pictured with a red tongue that would put Gene Simmons of KISS to shame, the creature was stuffing a frightened boy into a wicker basket. Turns out this was a Wilhelmine-era German Christmas card showing Saint Nicholas’s seldom-seen other half, Krampus. In Central European Christmas mythology, old Saint Nick was always a double act: he would reward good children with sweets and toys while the bad kids got a visit from Krampus instead and a lump of coal. If you were really bad, Krampus would take you on a one-way trip to Krampusland. Great parental leveraging tool.
I should have known this tradition having been married to a German woman for many years but strangely didn’t. However, Krampus celebrations are not universal in Germany, having started in the Alpine regions and then spreading into Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, St. Nicholas’s “helper” is “Black Peter”, usually portrayed as a man in blackface makeup. In recent years, some have called for Black Peter to be cut from parades because of perceived racist overtones. But the southern tradition of the hairy, horned demonic creature who accompanies St. Nick on his travels actually predates Christianity as he was once part of pagan winter rituals. It was most probably grafted onto Christmas when that festival displaced Yule in early medieval times. For most of the 20th century, civic and church authorities had repressed this ancient tradition, and in many places, St. Nick lost the flip side of his coin. But that is beginning to change and Krampus celebrations are having a bit of a comeback in southern Germany. After I decided to blog about this, I saw that the Guardian ran a short piece on the same subject yesterday. They put the resurgence of Krampus down to a societal reflex against the commercialization of Christmas and all the saccharine trimmings that accompany it. Sort of getting back to one’s roots really.Costumed performers are now popping up everywhere (including some big US cities) during the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, prancing through the streets and frightening the bejeezus out of little kids. Sweet. I think I’m a bit envious the tradition wasn’t around for me when I was a kid. Beats the hell out of Rudolph and his red nose.