Friday, December 4, 2015

Keep Krampus in Christmas

In central Europe there is a dark side to Christmas.  Sure enough, St. Nicholas makes his appearance bringing candy and presents to children, but he's often accompanied by a not-so-nice demon.

This companion takes many forms.  In the low countries it's Zwarte Piet (or Black Peter), a moor from Spain.  He is probably the most benign of St. Nick's side-kicks.  He's Santa's right hand man and helps out along the way.  Today his main role is to amuse children and to scatter Christmas candy for those who come to meet the saint.  Although, it's not all goodness and light.  Both St. Nick and Zwarte Piet will seize bad children and carry them off in a burlap sack back to Spain, where Sinterklaas and his helper dwell out-of-season.  

In much of Germany, it's Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert)  According to some traditions, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raised from childhood.  He carries the sack of presents and a rod for disobedient children. "Just wait until Ruprecht comes" is still a common threat in German homes.  

From the palatinate in Germany comes the Belsnickel.  The Belsnickel travels alone.  He is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled.  He carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.  The Belsnickel tradition remains alive among the Pennsylvania Germans.  Sue's mother recalls hearing about the Belsnickel when she was young.

Dwight from The Office as the Belsnickel

But the darkest and most horrifying of Santa's companions is the Krampus, found in parts of Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia.  While St. Nicholas brings gifts as rewards to good children each year, he leaves the task of punishing bad children to the terrifying Krampus.  Bearing horns, dark hair, and fangs, the anti-St. Nicholas comes with a chain and bells that he lashes about, along with a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kiddies down to the underworld.

Not surprisingly, the Krampus derives his name from the German word krampen, meaning claw. 

The Feast of St. Nicholas is December 6th.  The eve of the saint's day is known as Krampusnacht.  On that night the Krampus makes his appearance, sometimes with St. Nick and sometimes alone.  He roams the streets terrorizing adults and children alike.  Be forewarned, tomorrow is Krampusnacht.

The Krampus is the perfect antidote to the all the Christmas kitsch and sentimentality we put up this time of year.   Oscar Wild said that "the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart."  If there was ever a time of year to stay away from cynicism, Christmas is it.

This will really get you in the Christmas spirit:  Krampus: The Dark Companion of Saint Nick


James R said...

Krampus is more appropriate than ever this year. His introduction to the blog by Myk was 2011, but this year he has finally made it to the American public with his own movie. Can Krampus Carols be far behind?

I'll continue my role as promoter of unrecognized movies with a frightfully entertaining Finnish movie called "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" by Jamari Helander. It is not specifically about Krampus, but certainly a non saccharine Christmas movie. I believe it fulfills the creepy or, at least, quirky creepy rating. I'm not the only one who liked this one. It has a 88% on the Tomatometer. Perfect for those who are ready to move on from "It's a Wonderful Life".

One last link, which I posted back in 2011, of a Tyrollean town which takes Krampus to heart, or maybe it's just the local criminal element (or military element) using Krampusnacht as an excuse to bully people in the town. In the U.S. this would be a lawyers' celebration. It's a tad long, but you can see around the 2m50s and 3m05 mark where people get whipped in the face. Good fare to start your anti-sentimentalist mood for this year's holiday.

Big Myk said...

I realize that I'm re-visiting old teritory here, but mostly I needed a vehicle to show the awesome pictures from The Atlantic. While I was at it, I decided to provide a bit more info about the Krampus and his colleagues.

Perhaps we don't have Krampus carols yet, but we do have Krampus cards (see KRAMPUS GREETING CARDS). You can also get Krampus sweaters. (Ugly Christmas Krampus Sweaters).

I am also aware of the movie "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale," although I've never seen it. In fact, I gave the DVD to my son, Tom, for Christmas last year. (I don't think that he has seen it yet -- he may be put off by the subtitles.) From what I can see, it appears to be a truly great movie. One reviewer called it "the most disturbingly awesome Christmas movie ever."

Finally, a short video from New York Times on the Krampus tradition. In Bavaria, Krampus Catches the Naughty. Merry Christmas and an eerie Krampusnacht to all.