While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine regions of Europe or the old Hapsburg countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia (Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia??) also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways -- or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
And Krampus is Satan’s little helper! The 5th of December, Nicholas Eve, is called Krampus Night (Krampusnacht) in these regions. “Der Krampus” is a large hairy beast man with the horns of a goat, cloven hooves, fangs, long clawed fingers a long a lolling tongue and dragging chains. The chains are believed to be representations of the devil being enchained by Christ and the Church.
Imagine a seriously po’ed Satyr on steroids and you’ll have a pretty good picture of Krampus. It’s believed that the Krampus figure goes back before the origins of Christianity and is based partially on Satyrs and also the son of Hel, the Norse Goddess of the underworld. Unable to stamp out these customs, the Catholic Church finally gave up and incorporated the figure into Christian winter celebrations by teaming him up with Saint Nicholas.
Being threatened with a visit from a satanic Boogie-man had to have been bad enough for children a few hundred years ago. But those were hard times and hard time call for hard measures.
Krampus didn’t lecture children or leave them coal. And considering how poor people were back then And how cold the alps get, it’s pretty easy to imagine that coal wasn’t such a bad gift after all. What good is a candy cane if you’ve frozen to death? It’s true that Krampus does carry a bundle of switches. But I think that the beatings he might give are just to warm up his arm and work up his appetite. For you see he’s also bringing either a big basket or wash tub on his back. When he brings the basket he’s going to drag the children off to Hell so and eat them. And the wash tub? That is for when he doesn’t feel like messing around and is just going to drown them on the spot! So you can imagine little Heidi or Peter keeping vigil all night and armed with an axe in a barricaded bed room knowing that der Krampus could come bursting in at any moment!
Now by the late 19th century the Krampus image softened and became more playful. The mailing of “Krampus postcards” even became fashionable. Some of the post card contained frightening imagery and some were more humorous. In the regions that have maintained the Krampus traditions Krampusnacht is celebrated by young men who go house to house dressed in elaborate Krampus costumes where they receive bribes of schnapps or other treats. Some areas even have Krampus festivals and parades. So even though it’s taken many centuries, the evening of the 5th of December has become a time festivities and not a night of terror. If you think about it though, maybe being scared spit-less for one evening and worrying about the consequences of their mis-deeds made the rest of the Christmas season that sweeter for the children.
Or at least for those who survived.