Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Klaasohm Festival

Do you remember last year's Night of the Krampus post? I wrote about the tradition of St. Nicholas Day, which the Germans and other central Europeans celebrate in early December. That one is, of course, interesting for us spankos because of the Krampus, the birch-equipped helper creature of St. Nicholas. In the post, I also mentioned that I want to go to one of the Krampus processions in Bavaria or Austria someday, "maybe next year". Watching brave, intrepid young women being chased around by (and getting a few playful lashes from) the local lads dressed up in these silly costumes, well, that certainly sounds like loads of fun.

Alas, I didn't make it this year. It would have been awesome to go there with Kaelah, but we're both pretty busy at the moment. As for me, I've been doing academic work, and answering kinky emails on the side - I still have a backlog of stuff that piled up during my recent break from blogging. There were 71 mails in the beginning, and while not all of them warranted a long and detailed reply, some did. It adds up to a lot of work. I'm not complaining, mind you. I enjoy the correspondence. Just don't expect an instant reply. Anyway, I'm done with most of the backlog now, so my response time is getting better again. The academic paper is coming along nicely, too. As for the Krampus processions, they will have to wait until 2010.

Speaking of emails, though, and speaking of local traditions, here is something that should interest you: the Klaasohm Festival in Borkum. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until one of my German readers mentioned it to me. She's from the North Sea coast, pretty much the opposite end of the country from where I am. To us landlocked Bavarians, the sea is an alien and mysterious entity, and so are the people who live near it. We affectionately refer to them as "fish heads" or "shell kickers", and they refer to us as... Well, you don't want to know! But seriously, all joking between northerners and southerners aside, I would love to go to the North Sea coast someday. I've heard many stories about how beautiful it is (the Wadden Sea was recently placed on the Unesco World Heritage list), the locals are supposed to be very hospitable and friendly, and now that I know about the Klaasohm Festival, I have one more incentive to travel there.
Thank you, Katja, for your email!

I think I can be forgiven for not having heard about Klaasohm before. It's a tradition that seems to be virtually unknown outside of Borkum, where it originated. I only found one single English-language source on Google, a "Destination Germany" information site that devoted half a sentence to it, and even the number of German sources is insignificantly small compared to the thousands of websites dealing with the history of St. Nicholas Day. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I'm really breaking new ground here. The historian in me is delighted. I just hope that the Tourismus Marketing Gmbh of Lower Saxony is equally happy about the results appearing on a BDSM blog, if they ever discover them!

So, what is this Klaasohm thing? The name is a combination of "Ohm", the old German word for "uncle", and "Klaas", which refers to St. Nicholas. Literally, it is the "Uncle Klaas Festival", and it is a regional version of St. Nicholas Day celebrated in Borkum, a coastal island in the North Sea. Borkum is the westernmost inhabited island in the German East Frisian island chain, right on the sea border with the Netherlands. It has a population of 5,300 and is mostly known as a holiday and health resort these days.

There is no consensus among historians about where, exactly, the Klaasohm Festival came from, but it seems to have originated during the era of the whale hunts, between 1700 and 1780, when most men from the island made their living as sailors aboard Dutch whaling ships. Like the rest of East Frisia, Borkum is predominantly Protestant and doesn't have any other festivals for saints. The theory goes that the sailors brought the tradition of St. Nicholas from the Netherlands. Known as "Sünterklaas" in Dutch, he became "Klaasohm", Uncle Klaas, in the tongue of the people of Borkum. Among other things, Nicholas of Myra is venerated as the patron saint of sailors, which helps to explain his popularity in the region. Klaasohm is celebrated on the evening of December 5th, around the same time as St. Nicholas Day in the rest of Germany. It combines Christian elements with various local, and perhaps older, traditions. Such as "driving evil spirits into the sea" with noise from horns and drums, and other sailor's superstitions.

Here is what happens during the festival. Like I said, these northern affairs are deeply mysterious to me as a Bavarian, so I hope I was able to piece everything together correctly from the articles I found: six young, unmarried men from the island dress up as Klaasohms. Yes, there are several of them! Their identity is kept secret. Even the men themselves, who are all members of the Verein Borkumer Jungens (the Borkum Boys Club, basically), are only told at the last minute who gets to be a Klaasohm this year. After dressing up in their costumes, the six Klaasohms and their helpers meet at the hall of the local railway, where they hold boxing and wrestling matches. Women, tourists and the press are excluded from this part of the event - only men from Borkum are allowed to watch. In the ritualised fights, it is determined who will take the leadership during this year's festival.

The costumes are worth mentioning in their own right. To hide their faces and their identities, the Klaasohms wear masks. Because the islanders didn't have much suitable material, these masks are made out of parts from the two most common animals of the region: sheep and seagulls. So, the Klaasohms are walking around with barrel-shaped "helmets" on their heads that are up to three feet in height, wrapped in sheepskin rugs and decorated with seagull feathers (sometimes entire wings from seagulls). How you can have a boxing match dressed up like that is beyond me, but hey, I'm basically a mountain dweller compared to these people, so what do I know... In any case, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the usual Santa Claus costume, that's for sure!

The Klaasohms can hardly see a thing behind their huge, cumbersome masks, so they have helpers who lead them through the streets during the subsequent festive processions. Once the ritual fights are over, they parade through the streets of the town with their comrades, making lots of noise to drive the evil spirits away, visiting all the pubs and private residences along the way - and spanking girls. This is where it gets interesting for us.

(The harpooning of a whale.
Copper engraving by Adolf von der Laan, 18th century.)

This part of the tradition goes back to the whale hunting days as well. The sailors were away at sea for months at a time, and when they returned home in the autumn season (sometimes, fittingly, as late as December), they discovered to their horror that the women had taken over the reins in the families and didn't want to subordinate themselves anymore. So, the men had to reestablish their authority. It is claimed that the spankings during today's Klaasohm Festival go back to this "reconquest" of the island from the women. Some historians argue that this doesn't make sense, because the Klaasohms were always unmarried young men - they believe that the whole thing has another source, perhaps ancient fertility rites. Does it really matter? The scholar in me may care about such distinctions, but the spanko doesn't. Regardless of their origin, be it male reconquest or fertility rites, the spankings are his favourite part of the festival.

Again, the men dressed up as Klaasohms are too visually impaired to do much running around, so they rely on their helpers to do the chasing. Once the helpers have caught a young female who was careless (or foolhardy) enough to get close to the procession, they bring her to the Klaasohm and she gets her bottom thrashed - with a cow's horn! Well, they don't seem to be squeamish in their choice of implements, these whale hunters. A German website I found advises: "Girls, be on your guard! The cow horn is still standard equipment for every Klaasohm." Later on, it describes the results of such encounters during the festivals of earlier years: "Often, tears flowed, and sometimes the blue and red welts had to be treated soothingly at home." Not too squeamish, no. The website leaves open whether or not the Klaasohm spankings of today are still that hard. One never knows! I just thought I should mention it to those kinky female readers of mine who are, by now, thinking of going to Borkum as a tourist.

Maybe next December? In the meantime, the whole Klaasohm tradition certainly makes for a nice erotic fantasy. And since we are living in such enlightened, emancipated times today, you can change it around if you like: there is nothing that prevents you from imagining a bunch of female whale hunters taking back the island from their men who stayed at home, if you are into F/M scenarios. I'm all for gender equality, as you know.

Before I close for today, I should mention that the women who had to endure swats from the Klaasohm receive "Moppe" afterwards, a kind of honey cake. So it's not all bad! Oh, and at the very end of the festival, a big crowd gathers on the central square of Borkum, the six Klaasohms climb on top of a tall advertising column that is located there, and then, one by one, they jump off the column into the arms of the crowd.

Sheepskin helmets, spankings with cow horns, and now stage diving? It sounds like these shell kicking northerners really have us Bavarians beat when it comes to St. Nicholas Day...


Katja said...

Shell kickers!! These Bavarian guys have no clue about spanking. Google the word "Schuhplattler", but be afraid of the search results. They spank themself or other man in public. Here in the Great North of Germany we have men whom know, what to do! Spank the women and give them candy.
Ludwig, great post as always.

Ludwig said...

Schuhplattler. Sigh! Do you really have to dig up all the embarassing secrets about us mountain-dwelling peasants from the deep south?

Thanks again for your mail and for pointing out this interesting festival to me.

Ursus Lewis said...

I see, there is still a lot to learn about these Germans. I certainly never heard about the Klaasohm. Thank you two for revealing this tradition.

! said...

Hahaha Schuhplattler =P I've seen it at an Oktoberfest presentation before.

Ludwig, this is a very informative post. I'm wondering though, what is the likelihood of a helper picking a young tourist to be a victim? In any case, Borkum has now made it onto my "Places to visit while I'm in Germany/Austria" list. When that trip will happen, I have no idea...hopefully in a couple of years, or after I get into vet school.


Unknown said...

It does make me wonder how such an... well, odd to my eyes, festival came about. There are sections I understand, but not how they could have come together in such a unique way.

Katja said...

Ludwig, isn´t it our duty to provide information to your readers from all over the world about ALL the wonderful traditions in Germany?

! said...

What is with all the spam on here?!

Ludwig said...

@ Rachel: "I'm wondering though, what is the likelihood of a helper picking a young tourist to be a victim?"

Well, as far as I understand, they are not too keen on tourists during Klaasohm. In one of the articles I found, an organiser was quoted as: "Guests are welcome, but we don't want to turn it into a grand tourist attraction!" I can certainly sympathise with that. However, if you are polite and low-key, I think the locals wouldn't mind your presence too much. And who knows, maybe they pick you out for a spanking, too! *grins*

@ Morgrim: I, too, wonder how some of the elements of this tradition came about - like the "stage diving" at the end. I can imagine that it came from some kind of manhood / test of courage thing, but why on St. Nicholas Day? That said, festivals like these usually just "grow organically" over the centuries, and they end up combining all sorts of things from all sorts of sources.

@ Katja: Point taken, point taken!

As for the spam: Unfortunately, it has become more regular over the recent weeks. So far, I've always deleted it manually, but I can't always do that quickly, and I have better things to do, anyway. So I've added a word verification for comments now to prevent spam. I'm sorry about the inconvenience, but it's preferable to reading all the idiotic crap about viagra and investment schemes...

Indy said...

For some reason, the google Schuhplattler description reminds me of the Bavarian luge champion Georg Hackl. Must have seen a clip of him in Lederhosen during one of those interminable personal stories they run during US Olympic coverage.

Ludwig, you should wear your Lupus mustache when you engage in traditional dances.

! said...


Indy...I just pictured Ludwig with that mustache and Lederhosen. Quite the sight *grins*

Ludwig said...

@ Indy, Rachel: Actually, Ludwig II. of Bavaria was known to wear Lederhosen sometimes. However, I am not going to imitate him in this regard - wrong kind of kink! You're lucky if I dress up in one of his other outfits one day, for the fun of it...

Kudos for knowing "Hackl Schorsch", though, Indy. I wouldn't have pegged you for a Winter Olympics fan.

Unknown said...

*reads Indy's comment*

*chokes on drink because laughing and swallowing are not activities that should be engaged in simultaneously*

Costumes are always fun, though...