Seasons Greetings to all! Just as the haka called to my Pacific Islander blood, now the Krampus is speaking to my German heritage. What, you expected a post about Santa and his twee elves from a writer of the supernatural? The Krampus is a perfect antidote to the forced holiday cheer that sends many an introvert scurrying into the dark recesses of – well, anywhere where we can avoid crowds and the seizure-inducing flashing of Christmas lights and advertising.
The Krampus is a dark, shaggy, half-goat, horned figure with fangs resembling the Christian Satan. Dragging chains and cowbells, he is the yin to Santa Claus’ yang. In Alpine regions including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Northern Italy, the Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas to visit children during the Yule season. While Santa rewards well-behaved children with gifts, the Krampus seeks out and punishes the naughty children. The best thing these miscreants can hope for is to be beaten into submission with birch branches. The Krampus has also been known to stuff young hooligans into his sack and haul them off to his lair to be either tortured or eaten.
Dating back to pre-Christian paganism, the name originates from the German krampen, which means “claw.” It is believed that the Krampus is derived from the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. Some origin stories relate the Krampus to the Horned God of the witches. In addition to its phallic significance, the birch may harken back to initiation rites of certain covens, where novices would undergo a mock death ritual that involved binding with chains and scourging. (I’m not entirely sure where the cowbells come into this, but I have not yet read Fifty Shades of Grey.) It is also possible that the chains are a Christian attempt to “bind the Devil,” since the Catholic church has a long history of trying to ban the Krampus and associated celebrations.
Some teachers in Austria have said the Krampus should not visit schools because he is too scary. In Hungary, a Krampus-lite is brought to the schools with St. Nick. Instead of applying the birch as tradition mandates, this kinder, gentler version of Krampus delivers presents with Santa. This is perhaps evidence that kids today aren’t what they used to be. If the postcard below is any indication, Edwardian children had little problem with Krampus. These kids were made of stearner stuff that helped many of them to survive the Great War.
To survive the crass commercialism that is part and parcel of the American holiday season (did you know you could send eBook copies of Soul Search to your friends and family through Amazon?), Krampus festivals have sprung up across the US. Unfortunately, there are already complaints that Krampus is becoming too commercialized. Austria sells chocolates, figurines, and collectible horns, while the US has a website where you can purchase Krampus schwag. Austrian tourism is bolstered by well-attended Krampuslauf—a Krampus Run that might rival the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Instead of bulls, people are chased through the streets by the “devils.” Perhaps Festivus, with its metal pole, minor miracles and feats of strength, remains the only alternative holiday celebration with a built-in process to remain free of commercialism. Who would want to gift anyone with anything after the airing of the grievances?
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