The ubiquitous jolly Santa. He love love loves you! and soon he’s going to bring you too many gifts. You couldn’t piss him off if you wanted to. And everywhere you go for the next three weeks, you won’t be able to escape jolly old him.
But today (or, rather, tonight) we celebrate the antithesis and the antidote to the cloying fat man in furry red pajamas. Let me introduce you to Santa’s doppelgänger, Krampus.
Wikipedia: “Krampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish bad children during the Christmas season, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards nice ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair.
Krampus is represented as a beast-like creature, generally demonic in appearance. The creature has roots in Germanic folklore. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus in Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.”
Take me to Austria, Youtube!…
Clay Risen, The Morning News, Santa’s Not So Little Helper: “You know Santa: cheeks like a rose, nose like a cherry. Now meet the Krampus, a boozy, goat-horned menace that whips European children during the first days of December.”
Santa Claus may be a wonderful symbol of the holiday spirit, but time and consumer society have warped him to the point where he makes little sense. The idea behind Santa, originally, was to carrot-and-stick little boys and girls into good behavior—he’s got a list, he’s checking it twice, and if you fall under the ‘naughty’ category it’s switches and coals for you. But what child in America is at all afraid of receiving a lump of coal under the tree? What child even knows what a ‘switch’ is? Thanks to a range of factors—Dr. Spock and Mattel are high on the list—Santa’s beneficence is a fait accompli.
Alpine Europe, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem. This is because years ago St. Nick’s job was split—while the jolly old elf delivered the goods, an evil, goat-horned spirit called the Krampus brought switches and bad dreams to the boys and girls of Austria, southern Germany, Switzerland, and far northern Italy.
And while many regional European traditions are giving way to international consumer culture (the fat, red-bedecked Santa is in fact quickly replacing the rail-thin St. Nick throughout the continent), the Krampus is alive and well. He even has his own day—December 5. His success is certainly thanks in part to the lack of a parallel in American society. But he has stuck around mostly because Krampus Fest, like most holidays in alpine Europe, is a beloved excuse for small towns to get together and drink their brains out.
There are no Christmas lights up at Janet Finegar’s house in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. She does not deck her halls with boughs of holly. Instead, hundreds of rib bones leftover from a neighborhood barbecue hang on a clothesline strung across her backyard. They’re bleaching in the sun.
“They have been scraped, boiled, scraped again, bleached and are now strung on strands and hanging out to dry,” she says. “They smell. Rib bones, as it turns out, are incredibly nasty.”
She will drape the bones over herself and wear them like a grisly tunic. It’s her Krampus costume.
The Krampus is a character from European Alpine folklore, common in Austria and Switzerland. The creature stands on two hooves and has horns growing out of its skull. An extremely long tongue hangs out of its mouth, and it carries a basket to haul away naughty children.
For hundreds of years, the Krampus and Saint Nicholas have worked a kind of good cop-bad cop routine. Saint Nick rewards the good children; Krampus terrorizes the bad.
For Finegar, it’s the perfect antidote for Christmas.
“If everything is sweet and beautiful and lovely and the most wonderful time of the year, some people, like me, start to get a little nauseated, want a little salt to go with the sugar,” she says. “I think there [are] a lot of people out there who enjoy the idea of having a little salt.”
I hear ya, sistah.
The other night I watched one of the best Christmas movies I’ve ever seen (or maybe I was just really in the mood for it), the Finnish holiday horror flick Rare Exports. It is awfully good. The humor is drier than a week old gingerbread cookie. Trailer…