Saturday, 20 December 2014

Krampus - The Forgotten Companion of Santa

Lately there has been a resurgence of interest in a traditional Germanic Yuletide figure - Krampus, a devil like figure who accompanies Santa or Saint Nichloas, in parts of southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. While Santa gives presents to the good boys and girls, Krampus is responsible for punishing the bad ones.

Depicted as a long tongued beast with horns, covered in brown or black hair, and with one human foot and one cloven foot, he is bound by chains symbolizing the devil being bound by Christianity. He carries birch switches to strike the bad children with, and a basket or tub, in which to potentially carry away the naughty ones.

Many scholars believe that the figure goes back to pagan times, and is a christianized version of the horned god, who was changed into an evil figure. Santa Claus is a variation of other winter figures like Old Man Winter, Odin or the Holly King who's aspects have been morphed with the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas. In Germanic countries he visits children on Dec.06 and leaves the good children presents in their stockings.
It is interesting to note that Odin in ancient Norse tradition was believed to leave good children presents in their shoes at this same time of year. He would fly to their houses on his eight legged horse Sleipnir and children would leave offerings of ale for him and hay for the horse. But there's no correlation at all between him and Santa right? Lol.

Alright - back to Krampus. Krampusnacht (Krampus night) is celebrated on the eve of Dec.06 Saint Nichloas' day. Men dress up as Krampus figures and accompany St Nicholas (who is dressed like a bishop). This tradition can be traced back to mummery parades associated with the winter solstice, where men would dress up in masks and like beasts and dance. This eventually became part of the celebration of Saint Nicholas. They parade about the town with him and visit homes and businesses. While St Nick gives gifts, Krampus distributes coal and birch switches often painted gold. These are put in the house as good luck charms and to remind kids to be good throughout the year. People then give the Krampus offerings of Schnapps to appease him.

In some areas women accompany the Krampus figures as well, known as Perchtas. Perchta, also called Berchta, or Frau Holle in Northern Germany, is a goddess associated with winter and the 12 days after the Winter Solstice. She is either shown as a beautiful young lady in white or an old haggard crone. During the parade these women are usually dressed as scary old hags.

Since the 1800s Europeans have had cards depicting Krampus, usually with the words "Greetings from Krampus" on them. These were popular in the 19th century and often featured violent imagery. Towards the turn of the last century, the art work became more cartoon like and less violent, like the one below.

Krampus Resurgence
During the 1930s - 50s Krampus celebrations were actively discouraged in areas like Austria because they were considers to be too pagan. However a resurgence in the last few decades means this tradition is being kept alive. There is debate though about wether he is too frightening for children.

This is certainly the predominant sentiment in North America as the Santa Clause tradition carried over well to the new world, but the darker aspects were left behind. The last couple of years have seen a new interest in Krampus.You can now even get Krampus holiday sweaters! Though it had been suggested that some are using the figure to be anti Christmas/Yuletide/Holiday season. Personally I think he can just be included in with everything else.

What do you think of Krampus?

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