You better watch out, you better not cry…or you’ll be dragged off to Hell
Christmas is coming. You’ve probably noticed. Decorations are going up, trees are being lit and children are starting to await with accelerating excitement the arrival of a certain, “jolly elf” in a red suit on the night of December 24. As everyone knows, good children will be rewarded by Santa Claus with toys, because after all he knows who is naughty and who is nice.
But what about those naughty kids? When I was a child their reward was a lump of coal. I never met anyone who was actually bad enough to end up with that and I wonder what Santa’s policy is today in our more inclusive, politically correct society, where the concept that “differently behaved” kids should reap punishment for their actions would perhaps be frowned upon. Compared to some of our continental cousins, however, the idea of Santa delivering a lump of coal as reward for naughtiness seems like wishy-washy liberalism.
In the northern, more Germanic parts of Europe, Santa Claus is not the only Yule visitor to make house calls. In most of Europe, presents are delivered by Saint Nicholas, usually around the start of December on his Saint’s Day (December 6). In a lot of places, he is accompanied by a “dark” character who does the the enforcement of the nice/naughty list. When I say, “dark” this can range from someone dressed in black to guys in (now rather tasteless) black-face make-up to “dark” in the sense of “utterly terrifying”.
In the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) Santa Claus is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (in English “Black Peter”). He still appears in Christmas parades in Amsterdam and Belgium, portrayed by a white actor in the sort of black-face make-up that was even regarded as offencive in the 1970s. Apart from that facet, Zwarte Piet is reasonably benign and his job is to entertain the kids.
Saint Nick is accompanied in Germany by another dark companion and with him things start to get a bit more serious. This character is called Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert). He has a long beard that covers his face, wears a black robe and tends to be a bit dishevelled. He carries a bag of ashes and tests children on their ability to pray. If they can, he rewards them with apples, nuts or gingerbread. If they can’t, he beats them with his bag of ashes. Ruprecht is a nickname for the devil in Germany which might be a clue to his origins. The beating thing is a bit of a trend with these creatures. In Southern Germany the figure of Belsnickel comes at this time of the year. He wears dark fur and rags, a mask and carries a switch with which to beat the naughty kids. This character has managed to cross the Atlantic and appears among the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. He even turned up in the American version of “The Office”.
All these creatures are positively cuddly though when compared to Krampus.
|Krampus, not Lordi|
Krampus comes howling from the darkness of an Austrian Alpine nightmare. In the shape of a man but covered in black fur, curling horns sprouting from his head and with a lolling red tongue that would make Gene Simmons feel inadequate, Krampus arrives on the night of December 5th- Krampusnacht.
|Gene Simmons, not Krampus|
He comes for the naughty children in the Alpine regions of Austria, Southern Bavaria, parts of the former Yugoslavia and Hungary and he doesn’t mess about with bits of coal either. Even beatings pale in comparison. Krampus bears a basket on his back and shoves the naughty children in it for transportation straight to Hell. As if the very idea of this horned demon was not terrifying enough, Austrians like to remind their children he is coming by exchanging krampuskarten (Krampus cards) at this time of year the way others send Christmas cards.
|Grretings from Krampus!|
If you feel your children could work on their behaviour and want to participate in this grand European tradition you can even get your own on Amazon.
Even the Austrian Nazis banned Krampus “celebrations” in the 1930s, but like a lot of things they didn’t like, it only made him more popular. It seems that today Krampus is actually more popular than ever and not just in Europe. Krampusnachts and Krampuslaucht (which seems to be an alcohol-fuelled 5K in fancy dress) are cropping up in the USA as well. There will even be a horror/comedy film about him released this year (appropriately on December 4).
It would be easy-and tempting-to say that this says a lot about the German psyche. The terror of misbehaving that is drummed into small children somehow translates into the fact that subsequent adults make sure all their trains run on time, but the only thing we really could say is that these traditions must be very old. The common theme that can be discerned is that a supernatural visitor arrives at this time of year who is dark furred or dark skinned, dishevelled, his face hidden by a mask and he punishes bad behaviour, usually by beating or sometimes worse. A variation of this figure is found right across the German-influenced parts of Europe from Holland to Slovenia, which shows the tradition must go way back in time to long before all these countries grew into separate nations. It’s tempting to speculate that this particular demon has haunted the world since the Romans peered nervously into the undergrowth of the Teutoburg Forest but we will just never know.
However, next time you see children crying when they meet Santa Claus , just think what they would be like if they met Krampus.
If you are in the mood for some Christmas chills, my new gothic horror novel, The Undead is now available in Kindle and Paperback