December 23, 2013

Krampus: The (Real) Nightmare Before Christmas, By Scott Farrell

Editor's note: This 2013 explainer will help Krampus newbies and entertain those familiar with the character.
The Terrifying Holiday-Devil of German Folklore
In the Alpine regions of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the December date for gift giving is not Christmas Day, but “St. Nicholas’ Eve,” December 5th. According to folklore, that’s the day the beloved patron saint of broadcasters, merchants, and (of course) children, goes from house to house in his long, fur-lined robe giving sweets and presents to obedient, well-behaved kids. This version of St. Nicholas isn’t accompanied by eight reindeer, however, but rather by a dreadful, demonic character known as the Krampus.
Krampus (in some regions called Bartl or Klaubauf) is a fearsome devil right out of a child’s worst nightmare: a shaggy Satyr with a forked tongue, ram’s horns, cloven hooves, and a long tail. His job is to terrorize every boy or girl who hasn’t been good enough to warrant St. Nicholas’s generosity. To take care of the “bad” children, Krampus brings along a set of manacles, a sturdy birch switch, and a tub or basket that he carries on his back. His task is to whip disobedient kids with his switch, lock them in chains, plunk them in his container, and drag them off to throw into the nearest body of water. (Which, on an early December evening in an Alpine village, would be a particularly chilly and unpleasant fate indeed.)
The origins of the Krampus legend stretch back to pre-Christian folklore — a cautionary avatar of the hazards of going abroad on a dark, snowy night. But unlike other folk traditions that have been incorporated into Christmas lore, the Krampus has lost none of its ferocity and pagan beastliness. The name itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is derived from the Bavarian word “krampn,” which means, “lifeless, or dried out.”
In many regions of Germany and Austria, festivals called Krampuslauf (or “the running of the Krampus”) are held in which revelers don elaborate (and downright ghastly) costumes and parade through the crowded streets twirling blazing sparklers, dragging clattering chains, and swinging whips and staves at anyone not quick enough to get out of their way.  Once the parade passes through, there’s nothing but cheering spectators — and quite a few weeping children — left in its wake.
Krampusnacht (Krampus’ night) was marked throughout the 19th century with Krampuskarten: holiday postcards depicting the devilish Krampus tormenting repentant German youngsters with the greeting, Gruss vom Krampus (or, “Cheers, from the Krampus”). Ironically, the Krampusnacht traditions were carried on through the 1930s until the Nazi government launched a concerted campaign to wipe out the old “rustic” traditions, which they felt were inappropriate for a respectable, modern nation like Germany. (Ironically, it was the Third Reich, and not the Krampus, that proved to be the real embodiment of terror and barbarism.)
More recently, images of the Krampus have begun to reappear around Christmastime. In the 1960s, several European ad campaigns created “vintage” images of the Krampus not as a tormentor, but as an impish seducer, wooing scantily clad maidens and frisky housewives. In 1998 an arcade video game called CarnEvil included the Krampus as one of its rampaging “boss” characters. Krampus lore was even featured on an episode of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” in a segment satirizing conservative complaints about disrespect for “old-fashioned” Christmas celebrations.
Though Krampus has long been part of European folklore, the German Christmas-devil is becoming more recognized – and even popularized – as part of American holiday celebrations with each passing year. Perhaps the dark-hearted Krampus provides a needed counterpoint to the relentless blitz of sugarplums-and-candy canes imagery of the Christmas season – a “yin” to the “yang” of Hallmark holiday TV specials and cheery department store Santa’s workshop dioramas.
Or perhaps, in a time when political corruption and corporate greed seem to be running unchecked, the notion of a terrifying figure who holds wrongdoers accountable in a pitiless and cruel manner strikes us as an especially satisfying and necessary aspect of the Christmas spirit in the 21st century.
Whatever the case, there’s no arguing that the traditional German holiday monster is rampaging his way into the American Christmas scene.
Bio -- Scott writes:   I am a long-time fan of the Krampus folklore - I even run the Facebook group "Americans Who Love Krampus." (With a small, but enthusiastic group of fans!)
I have also contributed essays and short stories to several collections/anthologies in the past, including "Steampunk Shakespeare," "Martial Arts and Philosophy," and "Living A Life Of Value."


Lissa Sloan said...

Great post!

Teresa Robeson said...

Really fascinating! I know there's a resurgence of Krampus themes but don't know that much about the background. This was a nice summary.

Anonymous said...

Most of this information about Krampus is completely new to me and I find it to be very interesting. I’ve heard of Krampus before but vaguely. I had no idea that Krampus was a holiday devil of German folklore. I only knew that he punishes kids who are bad before Santa comes. This new information is actually pretty scary and I’m not surprised that Krampus is not a popular character anymore. I found it funny that adults would tell children something so absurd in order to scare the pants off of them so they would behave. I mean how bad do your kids have to be if you’re threatening them with Krampus! I also found it ironic that out of all people, the Nazi government felt that Krampus was too inappropriate for the children of modern Germany, yet it is perfectly acceptable to approve of the murders of Jewish children, men, and women… just down right nonsense. After reading this I’ll never forget about Krampus, fascinating info!
Paige F.

Anonymous said...

Throughout reading this, I couldn’t help but imagine that such a figure could be beneficial to our traditions. As awful and frightening as Krampus might seem, it could be a solution in a country with a generation full of “naughty” children that feel deserving without earning. Children expect to get gifts from the jolly Saint Nick, no matter how their behavior is leading up to the occasion, and of course, to follow through with tradition, parents continue putting presents under the trees despite their children’s misbehavior, for the fear of coal in your stocking is simply not enough. We are living in a selfish world, I can’t help but wonder if using such scare tactics could have influenced our younger generation to be a little more caring of others and considerate to the people around them. I would like to think that if I had had the fear of Krampus that I might have made some different choices in my growing up.