Friday, December 5, 2008

Night of the Krampus

Tomorrow, on the 6th of December, the Germans and other central Europeans traditionally celebrate St. Nicholas Day ("Nikolaustag"). In Bavaria, the day before that is "Krampustag", the day of the Krampus, named after the sinister sidekick of St. Nicholas. By the usual custom, both figures appear together on the evening of the 5th of December to bring gifts to the good children (and to punish the bad ones). As the Krampus is a horned demon-figure commonly depicted carrying a birch (and not afraid to use it), this is an intriguing bit of Alpine mythology especially for us spankos.

(An old German Christmas postcard depicting St. Nicholas and his helper Krampus, whom some call "the missing link between Santa and Satan")

As a historian, I'm always interested in traditions, anyway. The one of St. Nicholas goes back to Nicholas of Myra, a Greek bishop during the 4th century who lived in what is today Turkey (back then, of course, part of the Eastern Roman Empire). There are not many historical sources about his life, but all the more legends - Nicholas was said to be a worker of miracles and a bringer of gifts. In the latter capacity, he is one of the most popular saints among Catholic and Orthodox Christians today.

Nicholas of Myra is also the basis of the Santa Claus figure popular in American culture. But there are differences. Santa Claus is the giftbringer on Christmas eve while St. Nicholas is not directly linked to Christmas - he has his own day in early December (in Germany, the Christmas gifts are the job of the "Christkind", the Christ child, instead). Another significant difference is that Santa Claus does pretty much everything by himself. He brings gifts for the good children and coal or sticks for the naughty ones. However, in the St. Nicholas tradition, the duties of reward and punishment are divided: Nicholas rewards the good children himself, but he has a companion to deal with the others.

In Bavaria (also in other central European regions like Austria, Hungary or the Czech lands), this companion is the Krampus. His name probably comes from the Old High German word "Krampen", which means "claw". There is also a Bavarian slang term "Krampn", denoting something lifeless, dried up, withered (I've never heard that term myself, but then again, I'm a city slicker from Munich, not a hillbilly).

What exactly is a Krampus? Well, he (naturally, they're all male!) is a scary, bad-tempered demon who usually looks something like this: humanoid form, but very big and tall, hairy goatskin, ugly face with glowing eyes, large horns like a goat or ram, and a tail. The inventory he carries consists of cowbells and rusty chains to make lots of noise (in addition to his incessant growling), a kind of backpack (called "Butte") which he supposedly uses to take naughty children away, and of course a birch for some spanking action.

The Krampus tradition originated in the Alpine region and probably goes back to some old, horned forest deity who, like other pagan figures, was eventually incorporated into local Christian mythology. Many scholars believe in a connection to the Greek-Roman god Pan / Faunus. Reminiscent of such ancient rites, young men would wear costumes with furs and horns for festive Krampus processions. For a time, this was outlawed by the inquisition, because they considered it a crime punishable by death to dress up as a devilish figure. But ever since the mid-17th century, the tradition that still continues today began to take shape, where the Krampus became a helper creature for St. Nicholas.

(Another Krampus postcard, this is an Austrian one from 1901, featuring a rather grownup-looking damsel in distress and St. Nicholas peeping through the window)

My parents were never big on religion, but whether you were a believer or not, it was simply considered part of the Bavarian Christmas season to have a visit from the Nikolaus for your children on the evening of December 5th. So one year, I must have been around six or seven at the time, they organised one. The two young men who came to our house dressed up as the saint and his furry sidekick were probably university students in their early twenties making a bit of extra money.

St. Nicholas himself was quite impressive, actually. He didn't have the typical red and white "coca cola outfit" of Santa Claus, but looked more like a proper bishop out of legend, with long white, gold-adorned robes and a crooked shepherd's staff. Plus the fake white beard, of course. Unfortunately, his companion in the Krampus costume was very slim and short, barely over five feet, and his acting wasn't great, either. It just wasn't the right role for him I guess (maybe they should have switched?). My mother told me years later that she had to do her best to play along and not burst out laughing while the poor guy was trying to be menacing and failing miserably. As for me, I don't remember being scared. Actually, I don't remember many details of the Krampus at all, only of St. Nicholas with the beard and robes.

I had no reason to be scared, anyway, as I was a pretty well-behaved child most of the time. And even if you weren't, the Krampus wouldn't actually use his birch - it was just a prop they carried for show, really. Then and now, the usual custom in Bavaria is that the Nikolaus and the Krampus play a kind of "good cop, bad cop" routine. They ask you if you've been nice during the past year, the Krampus acts all threatening and eager to spank you, and then the Nikolaus calms down his assistant ("Well, I think we have a good child here...") and gives you some presents. Only in my case, the bad cop was rather pathetic, which is why my parents never bothered to arrange such a visit again.

Ah well, I guess I didn't miss out on anything. While I already had my first secret kinky fantasies around that time, I certainly didn't envision getting a spanking in front of my mom and dad! For some reason, that particular scenario didn't seem attractive or "appropriate" to fantasise about. But the birch, as such, was an exciting tool to look at. I guess it's impossible to be a kinky guy or girl from these parts and not associate that instrument with the whole Krampus tradition, on some level.

In some places, especially in Austria, they still have proper Krampus processions where you can see entire groups of the cute little devils. It's a common, humorous test of courage for bystanders to try and provoke the Krampusse (plural!) without being caught and hit. Because during these processions, the men in the costumes do like to use the birches, especially on young women. Which, I believe, also goes back to an ancient fertility ritual where it was considered good luck for a girl to get a few symbolic lashes. Or maybe the Krampusse just think that whipping young women is fun (can't imagine why).

I've never been to such a procession, but I'd like to see one sometime. Maybe next year I'll have time to travel. It would be fun just to watch as a voyeur, waiting for some Krampus/F action. Or should I dress up myself? Hmm, it seems like a very odd, rural thing to do for a city slicker. Goat horns, give me a break! Then again, at least I'd be over a foot taller than the guy who failed to scare me when I was a kid. And I'm well-practiced with spanking implements, even though I haven't used a birch before. Don't know. I guess I'll just watch as a bystander next year, and see how I like the general idea.

(A group of Krampusse during a procession, complete with birches and chains)


! said...

Hmmm..interesting traditions there. It would be great as a CP video...

Anonymous said...

As you know, I'm French-Canadian. I've never understood why the Père Fouettard (literally 'Whipping Father') isn't in the Christmas mythology here.

Maybe the British influence wiped it out?

What we do however have is the mystical bonhomme sept-heures, who kidnaps children that aren't home by 7 o'clock in the evening and presumably also punishes them.

Indy said...

Ludwig, having seen you on film several times now, I'd say you're scarier without the Krampus costume. Not a bad way to meet kinky women, I would imagine. But as a way to meet kinky men? How the heck would you tell them apart?

! said...

Smallhanded - so THAT's what my French teacher was talking about...except she use dit in the context of giving people detention for being late to class :P

Where did Santa come from?

smith said...

I adored this post...more than you will ever know. As someone who lived in Germany for 6 years...3 as a kid and 3 as an adult - I love the German celebrations. My mom always made us put our shoes outside on St. Nicolas eve and we would find it filled with little chocolates in a bag the next morning. Being of Swedish heritage...we also celebrated Santa Ludia where I eagerly awaited my chance when I was 13 to portray her...a crown of candles on my the ceremony. More Germany....Kristkindlemarkts - of which we have a pretty big one here in Denver. I go every year and it always puts me in the mood. Lots of gingerbreat hearts to go around. Like with Saint Nick...Lucia had nothing really to do with Christmas but rather her bravery and kindness to others. I think that's why I adored her....

"Natten går stor och stum nu hörs dess vingar i alla tysta rum sus som av vingar. Se, på vår tröskel står vitklädd med ljus i hår Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia."

"The night goes great and mute. Now one hears its wings in every silent room murmuring as if from wings. Look at our threshold. There she stands white-clad with lights in her hair Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia"

Thanks for your awesome words and rich history...I needed this post today.


p.s. I filmed my first scenes for RS this past week...haha. I'll let you know when they are available.


Smallhanded the "British" Farther Christmas is not so British It is more of an amalgamation of European legends. The hooded figure (cloak of undetermined colour) Comes from the Danish tradition (Introduced by the Vikings) of Odin having a midwinters day hunt on his flying horse. The tradition for that being if children left root vegetables for Odin's flying horse to eat, in their shoes, Odin would reward them by leaving them treats in exchange. As Christianity gained ground in England Odin was replaced by the Green Man (who's festivals have nothing to do with Midwinter or Christmas by the way), a pagan God deemed so harmless by the Christian church that it is hard to find a church in the the UK, over a century old, that does not have representations of him carved into the stonework. This created the smooth shaven green cloaked gift giver that England had for many centuries, usually known as Old Man or Sir Christmas. For reasons unknown to myself this figure started to be referred to as Farther Christmas during the 16th century.

Because of the influence of firstly William of Orange (3rd of England) and later the Hanoverian dynasties the hooded cloak of Farther Christmas turned red, amongst the aristocracy, and he developed a beard (the full adoption of St. Nicholas was deemed as inappropriate as he was a non protestant bishop and the Jacobite wars where going on at the time).

And so for a couple of hundred years the UK had two Christmas gift givers. The red cloaked and bearded Farther Christmas for the aristocracy and the smooth shaven green cloaked farther Christmas for everyone else.

Then Prince Albert Married Queen Victoria. Prince Albert was a highly respected campaigner for relief from poverty of the working classes and became a hero amongst all classes, aristocracy, middle and working. His influence started a trend for people in the UK to copy, as closely as they could afford, the Royal Christmas of the time and The red cloaked, bearded, Farther Christmas became the standard across the UK.

Then the Americans got hold of this figure and re named him Santa Claus (a bastardization of the name St. Nicholas) and with there amazing ability at advertising, popularized this figure throughout the world.

So please Smallhanded, do not go with the usual French speaking, knee jerk reaction of blaming the British for wiping out this particular French tradition. The blame lies equally with the Danes, the Dutch, the Germans and The Americans. Thank you very much.


Irelynn said...

Hey Ludwig, if you're going there, you wouldn't mind taking me, would you? :)

It sounds like an interesting enough experience, though I don't really have any aspirations to be birched by devilish creatures. It sounds like something everyone should do at least once in their lives. ;-)

Being Dutch, we have a slightly different take on the 5th of December. We get a Santaclaus look-a-like, but he arrives on a big boat from Spain every year to bring presents for children. His helpers are simply black men and women and they do carry birches, but the real threat is being put in a big bag and having Sinterklaas take you away to Spain with him. There you're locked up and fed only water and stale bread, you see. Oh, and I think there's the threat of getting your mouth soaped as well.

Do you think this means perverts have always existed? I mean, these pervy ideas must have come from somewhere... ;-)