Gruss von Krampus!
(Greetings from Krampus)
There’s a strange fellow who hangs out with St. Nicholas in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and many other European countries. His name is Krampus, from an old German word for “claw” (think “crampons”). Krampus has fur, horns, a long tongue, a tail, and sometimes hooves. Chains and bells hang from his costume, and he carries a birch-branch switch and a large basket. Why? Well, if you’re a bad little boy or girl in Central Europe, you’ll find out! On Christmas Eve, Krampus and St. Nick go over a list. While St. Nick gives presents to the good little children, Krampus seeks out the bad kids and switches them; then if they’re really bad he might put them in his basket and take them away! After all this mayhem, he and St. Nick meet up at the beer garden to toast a job well done.
Dec. 5th, the day before St. Nicholas’ feast, is Krampuslauf. Many cities in Europe and now the United States--including Los Angeles--hold parades of numerous Krampuses who march around, occasionally switching spectators and threatening to leap over barriers. In one online video from Europe (do NOT try this in the U.S., Krampus!) a Krampus switches a policeman who has admonished him to stay between the barricades. In several videos, they chase and switch young women or put children in baskets or on sleighs used as floats in the parade. The kids don't appear to be afraid of Krampus; many are delighted. A man dressed as Bishop Nicholas, in saintly white, usually follows, sometimes with a few young women dressed as angels.
In the late 19th Century Krampus started showing up on Christmas cards, often with the greeting “Gruss von Krampus!” Some cards portray him traditionally; others make fun of the tradition by depicting him carrying off an attractive woman or otherwise behaving in a salacious or silly way. Krampus is no longer the boogieman—he now belongs to the same category as the Lord of Misrule, adding a dash of chaos to an otherwise orderly, sober, and religious holiday.
We need Krampus. He is obviously a holdover from an earlier time, a time of Saturnalia and Winter Solstice festivities. He’d be an awesome guest at Festivus, because the rest of us get a little depressed this time of year and feel like there are a few out there who could use a good switching. It’s a time of stress, loneliness, poverty, and unrealistic expectations for a lot of people. So Krampus is the answer to the Christmas blues for some of us. He clangs his cowbell at carolers, stumbles rudely through the holiday parade, holds up traffic, drinks wassail straight from the bowl, and waves his switch blindly as his mask threatens to fall off. His avatars keep multiplying, usually wherever there are enough hipsters to make Krampus costumes and stage a parade or concert and wherever there are people who order from the Archie McPhee catalog. Only Santa Claus truly understands and appreciates him, but some of us are glad he’s there. He brings a little darkness to an otherwise disturbingly well-lit fete.