Have You Heard of Santa’s Traveling Companion, the Krampus?
by Bracken MacLeod
Being more of an every-day-is-Halloween kind of guy, you’d be correct in assuming that I’m not a big fan of Christmas. The enforced cheer, expected gift-giving, and seeming endlessness of the season all leave me feeling colder than a winter Nor’easter. With the renewed interest in an Alpine figure who used to be associated with the holidays, however, some of the cheer of the season has crept into my spirit.
We’re all aware that during this time of year Santa Claus is the figure held up as the arbiter of who has been naughty and nice. Where Santa used to leave bad little children a lump of coal in their stockings instead of presents, his role in children’s programming and as a spokesmodel for a variety of wholesome family products has left him toothless and passive-aggressive (the jolly old elf today simply rebukes unruly children for their wickedness by failing to stop at their houses on Christmas Eve). It wasn’t always so, however. For centuries in Europe, St. Nicholas (the precursor to Santa Claus) has been known to have had a variety of traveling companions entrusted with making sure evil children got their just desserts. In recent years, one in particular is standing head and shoulders above the rest, having made his way to Twenty-First Century America and into my heart.
The Krampus is the ancient embodiment of accountability for wickedness balanced against St. Nicholas’ reward for virtue. He appears as a wild, bestial, goat-like figure wearing chains and bells that foretell his coming. As jolly old St. Nick is out leaving good children gifts and treats as a reward for good behavior, Krampus is prowling the night dishing out punishment for those who have fallen short of his exacting moral standards. He carries with him two fearsome instruments that should quicken the pulse of anyone who has been naughty more often than nice. First is a tied bundle of birch branches known as a “ruten” that he uses to whip naughty children (the beating is euphemistically called a “birching”). Second is a sack or a wooden tub that he wears on his back. Truly rotten children are stuffed in the sack to be taken away for further punishments that may include drowning in a river and/or inclusion in Krampus’ own Christmas dinner.
Unlike the modern Kris Kringle who doles out a half-assed punishment by failing to reward naughty kids (ostensibly making Christmas morning like any ordinary day), the Krampus does twice the work he needs to do just in case you were thinking of doing something bad later. Unwilling to let anyone become too comfortable with their own piety, Krampus still visits good families during the holidays, leaving them small gold-colored rutenas a reminder to remain morally upright. Krampus visits the good and bad alike — the holiday version of Scared Straight.
Although Krampusnacht is typically celebrated in parts of Europe on December 5 (the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas) with parades, elaborate Krampus costumes, and public birchings, I am as happy as a little school child to find that he has started to infiltrate the whole of the holiday season. Being a horror writer and fan, it really brings opens up the splendor and joy of the season to have my own Christmas demon waiting in the wings to inject a little horror into the holidays and scare the bejeepers out of everyone whether they need an attitude adjustment or not.
Gruβ vom Krampus!
Bracken MacLeod is a member of the NEHW.