Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Krampus

In the spirit of this Christmas season, I have researched a creature that many have undoubtedly heard of, but none have actually seen. Enjoy!

Everyone knows who Santa Claus is. He’s a jolly, overly-plump man in a red suit with white fur trim, a matching hat, and a snow-white beard…right? What most people don’t know is that good old Saint Nick has an opposite, a bestial creature that punishes the children who don’t behave themselves during the Christmas season. He takes particularly naughty children away to his lair in a large sack. It is likely that these children are never seen again. He is known by many names across the world: Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, Perchten, Certa, Pelznickel, Schmutzli, the Christmas Demon, and Klaubauf. However, one of these names stands out from all of the rest: He is the Krampus.
 
The name Krampus comes from the old High German word krampen, meaning “claw” or “to seize.” The Krampus is a very old entity, quite possibly a pagan fertility demon, originating in Germanic folklore and dating back before the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The early Catholic Church strongly discouraged any kind of festivities revolving around goatlike creatures (and goats in general), and the Inquisition made great efforts to stomp such things out of existence. In fact, the Inquisitors would put anyone who dressed like or impersonated the Devil to death. But despite this, the Krampus endured, and by the 17th century the Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by pairing him with Saint Nicholas (now known as Santa Claus). Nowadays, the lore of this creature is most common in Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary.
 
It is unknown if anyone has actually seen the Krampus (those who have seem to disappear soon afterwards), but descriptions of the creature seem to be more or less consistent. He is described as being similar in appearance to the Devil himself, having long horns, sharp fangs, pointed ears, claws on his fingertips, cloven hooves, bulging eyes, a very long tongue, and a tail. Some traditions say that his feet are mismatched, one being a cloven hoof and the other the paw of a bear. Some say that he may be seen as a sinister-looking gentleman dressed entirely in black. Regardless of the form he takes, the Krampus is a towering and frightening figure, being seven feet in height, while his body is said to be covered in matted black fur or hair. He wears a large wicker basket or a barrel on his back, filled with bundles of birch sticks (although he has been known to carry a pitchfork from time to time). What are these sticks for? Well, after the Krampus has caught his victims, he uses these sticks to savagely beat naughty children half to death while jolly old Saint Nick himself looks on (he can’t afford to get his hands dirty, as he is a saint). Sometimes, he whisks them away to his lair, where further punishment is inflicted until they repent of their sins and wrongdoings. For the worst of them, he throws them into the fiery pits of Hell. That being said, it would be reasonable to assume that the Krampus won’t hesitate to kill any children that he feels deserve it. There is no way to kill or to destroy the Krampus.
 
However, stopping at beatings with sticks is far too lenient for the creature, for he is a master of torture and many different forms of punishment. According to one series of popular postcards from the 1800s, the Krampus enjoys ripping the pigtails off of little girls, putting children in shackles, pulling ears with a sadistic relish, forcing kids to beg for mercy, throwing children off of a cliff, pulling out fingernails, throwing little boys and girls on a train headed straight for the pits of Hell, and drowning children in ink and fishing them out with a pitchfork. If the Krampus thinks that a child has been mostly good and only a little naughty, he may subject them to a grueling test on religious catechism, according to some traditions. If the child passes, they receive their gifts. If not, then they are beaten within an inch or so of their lives. In other words, the Krampus is a sadistic monster that is hellbent on punishing those children who haven’t been behaving themselves properly during the course of the year. The only way to ward off the Krampus, it seems, is for children to be obedient to their parents and behave themselves all year.

However, the Krampus also sends terror into the hearts of adults, particularly young women. The satyrs of Greek mythology (which the Krampus resembles) were known for being lusty nymphomaniacs, and the Krampus is no exception. In the 1960s, the creature briefly stopped tormenting children in order to satisfy another desire: having sex with young women. He became a sort of sexual demon (similar to an incubus), pictured on foreign postcards as being a sadomasochistic bondage freak with a thing for fetish sex. However, this soon ran its course, and the Krampus went back to causing suffering for bad children.

In order to counter these superstitions, Martin Luther forbade such practices in areas where the Lutheran faith was dominant. Instead, it is said that Jesus Christ, the Christ Child Himself, would bring the children gifts instead. However, this hardly kept the notion of the Krampus at bay. In some traditions (in which the Krampus is known as Knecht Ruprecht), the kids would be called to the front door. Once there, they would perform certain tricks (like singing or dancing) to prove that they had indeed been good. Those who did well were given gifts or treats, while those who didn’t do so well were beaten with birch sticks. And for those children who had misbehaved throughout the entire year or performed their songs or dances badly, they were put into the Krampus’s sack and taken away, to either his home in the Black Forest, or to be thrown into a river.

Today, the Krampus is still widely spoken of and feared by children and their parents alike. To celebrate this Evil Santa Claus figure, the people of Hungary and Austria hold Krampus Runs (Krampuslauf) during the first week of December every year. Men of every age (mostly the younger ones) would dress themselves in dark suits made from animal skins, red wooden masks carved with horns or antlers (more likely having the real thing attached), and mismatched shoes. These guys carry chains, whips, bells, and baskets with them. Carving the masks themselves takes considerable effort and skill, which is why so many do it competitively in the Krampus Runs. These characters may be seen with Saint Nicholas himself in evening parades, but the primary purpose of doing all of this is to scare the living daylights out of children. These crazed young men run after children and women, whipping them (gently, one would hope) while they’re in pursuit. The tradition itself culminates with the adults inviting the costumed marauders inside for drinks (mostly beer and schnapps). This tradition is becoming popular in other parts of Europe and even in America. But people need to be reminded that behind this tradition is a dark, terrible monster that does not hesitate to kill children for their misdeeds. But does the Krampus truly exist? One is inclined to think so. As long as people continue to believe in Santa Claus, then the Krampus will continue to frighten children all over the world for years to come.

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