I’ve spent the holiday season in several countries–Germany, Israel and now Spain. Christmas is a strange time to be abroad. On the one hand, spending the holiday season abroad is one of the best time to really learn about a culture and its traditions. On the other hand, it can be profoundly lonely knowing that back home your closest friends and family are participating in traditions and customs you hold dear and you’re missing it. Christmas in Germany is full of wonderful traditions, and in fact, many American Christmas traditions come from Germany like the Weihnachtsbaum and Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas trees and Christmas markets). I like spending the holidays in Germany because it lacks the crazy shopping frenzy and is much more focused on spending cozy time with friends and family, and of course Glühwein (warm mulled wine). But today I want to discuss a much stranger and decidedly un-cozy tradition you would have witnessed had you been in Bavaria on December 5th–the Krampuslauf.
For American standards, Krampus is better suited for October 31st than December 5th. He is a devil-looking creature with large horns and a grotesque curling tongue. He is St. Nick’s alter-ego, the one that punishes naughty children, while the jolly old fellow leaves good children gifts (in Germany, children get small gifts in their shoes on December 6th!). But if you thought the threat of coal in the stocking was powerful enough to keep children good throughout the year, try the threat of kidnap and torture by the evil and devious Krampus. Yes, Krampus accompanies St. Nick on the eve of December 5th and while your sister is getting candy and coins, you’re being put into a sack and whisked away never to be heard from again. Sometimes Krampus brings help to carry out his dastardly deeds–a female but equally ghoulish character called Perchten. To keep the legend of Krampus alive, people dress up in all manner of frightening garb and roam Christmas markets throughout Bavaria and other Alpine communities in Italy, France, and Austria. These parades of sorts are what the Germans call Krampuslauf.
Krampus may be the most frightening example of a larger European Christmas custom where a shady, dark character accompanies the generous and jolly Saint Nicholas, the former carrying out the requisite punishments from the naughty list and the latter checking off the children on the nice list. In northern Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is a much more sanitized version of Krampus; he is human-like and doesn’t engage in kidnap or torture, just the giving of coal or sticks. Dark Peter or Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands may be the most controversial of these traditions, due to its rather racist portrayal of the character in what Americans would call “blackface.” It seems that these two personalities were merged when Saint Nicholas immigrated to the United States in the early 20th Century and changed his name to Santa Claus, and today there is little evidence of Santa’s dark side in America. However, if Stephen Colbert has anything to say about it, Krampus will be immigrating to the US as soon as possible:
If you like Krampus, you can join this facebook group: Americans who Love Krampus. Although something tells me that American culture will not be very welcoming to bringing the devil incarnate into its celebrations full of nativity scenes and getting 40% off at Macy’s.
Next time on creepy Christmas traditions: the Catalan Christmas log! Merry Christmas from around the world!