Krampusnacht: Panic on the Streets of Austria
“Warst nicht brav,
Kommt das Krampus
“You may think all this strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan” - Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan 1894
Perhaps you hear those sleigh bells jingling, maybe even ring ting-tingaling too, for Saint Nicholas' Day draws near. But wait! Good old Saint Nick didn't come alone this year. Giddy-up your jingle horse, pick up those feet, because Krampus is coming...quite possibly on a motorbike.
Rare is the folkloric figure, who experiences as meteoric a rise into supernatural super-stardom as Krampus. In recent years this terrifying, Christmas bogeyman has gone from a relatively unknown Austrian tradition to an internationally celebrated character, with title roles in feature films, Hellboy one-shots and references across pop culture, not to mention becoming a part of winter traditions far away from his Alpine roots. As British and North American Christmas customs have a tendency to lean towards the saccharine and the twee, it is easy to see the appeal of a character so innately subversive and opposed to these more conservative ways. But who exactly is being celebrated here? Who is this mean, caprine*, child-thrashing being?
Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night is traditionally observed on the fifth of December, significantly being the night before Saint Nicholas' Day. The figures of Saint Nicholas and Krampus are closely linked in the folklore of Austria and surrounding Alpine regions; indeed across much of Western Europe the benevolent saint is accompanied by a similarly grotesque creature, tasked with the role of chastising or even abducting and murdering the badly behaved, a role that Nicholas would be far too pious and charitable to fulfill.
A bishop from fourth century Turkey, there are many stories told of 'Niklaos of Myra'. Tales of secretly giving money to those in need tie him to the modern interpretation of Santa Claus, but not all of his exploits are suitable for telling around a festive fireplace. Unless you grew up in France that is, where the following tale is taught as a fun song for children and has been since the 16th century.
During a time of famine, three young children are sent from their home to gather food. To do so they traverse a forest and come upon the house of a butcher, looking to rest for the night before continuing their search they ask if they may sleep there. Driven mad by hunger and narrative convention, said butcher immediately murders the non genre-savvy kids and seals their remains into a barrel of pickling brine.
“Ils n'étaient pas sitôt entrés
Que le boucher les a tués,
Les a coupés en p'tits morceaux,
Mis au saloir comme pourceaux.”
“No sooner had they entered,
than the butcher slew them,
chopping them to bits
and putting them in brine, like pork”
- La légende de Saint Nicholas (Traditional)
In steps our hero Niklaos, a mere seven years later, to visit this butcher's home. As a revered guest, the bishop is offered the finest food that the butcher has to offer, but Niklaos politely declines. Instead he requests that well preserved and unopened barrel for he believes it contains the most precious meat. Racked by guilt the butcher confesses all, admitting to slaughtering the children out of desperation but being too remorseful to actually resort to cannibalism. Then with a wiggle of three holy fingers the bishop restored life to the three boys, improving their conditioned from 'butchered' to 'running very late'.
There are fun allusions between the role played by Bishop Niklaos here and that of Hellboy in the story Krampusnacht; long after the crimes have been committed, a benevolent figure possessed of supernatural power arrives to tend to the unhappy dead and to hear the confession of a remorseful monster.
Generally the fun nursery song ends with the children springing to life. But a popular version of the tale tells that to atone for his crimes, the butcher enters into a life of servitude to Saint Nicholas, accompanying him on the sixth of December to whip misbehaving children as the grisly figure Père Fouettard ('Father Whipper' or 'Whip Daddy').
[WHIP DADDY IMAGE UNAVAILABLE]
Though the various companions of the saint have distinct and different origins depending on their location, there are commonalities between their role and shared distinguishing features. Père Fouettard is depicted more or less as a non-supernatural human figure, though there is a sense of otherness in his disheveled appearance, ragged clothes and sometimes unnaturally dark complexion.
Currently the blacking-up of these characters is a source of pretty strong controversy across Europe and it is not difficult to see why. Representations of demons or beings who deviate from the European Christian notions of goodness have frequently been depicted as darkened by shadow or black fur and it seems likely that this concept definitely influenced the early traditions of Saint Nicholas' companions.
The aforementioned Père Fouettard seems to fit this description and the Czech equivalent, the Čert (Devil) is even closer. However, a quick glance at the Netherlands’ 'Zwart Piet' shows a very different attitude and since the mid-20th century has transformed into grotesque minstrel imagery. The argument in defence states that this is a figure of tradition, however these traditions are constantly changing, they represent rather than dictate the lore and norms of society, though as we will see, it appears easier to welcome new traditions rather than to let the old ones pass.
But now to Krampus himself. It perhaps seems strange that a holy man such as Saint Nicholas would associate with a 'demon' or 'devil', but on closer inspection things are not exactly as they appear on the surface. Père Fouettard is a penitent figure, the Čert is also accompanied by an equivalent angelic figure to provide balance whereas the Krampus can be seen to represent something older, more pagan in the original sense of the word.
With twisted horns, goat legs and the tongue of a snake, Krampus certainly resembles our modern day image of a demon. However this image is drawn from much earlier depictions of Greek and Roman satyrs and of course the Great God Pan. There is a huge amount to be said about the changing representations of demons in Christian iconography and how the early images of chimerical snake and bird devils merged with satyrs and Jewish se'irim to become increasingly caprine. I would love to revisit this as a topic at a later date.
Rather than simply figures of evil, satyrs and Pan in particular, represent something more complex, though equally confounding to an early Christian establishment, a delight in hedonism and the chaos which it can create. Take the Krampusnacht tradition of the krampuslaufen (Krampus run) for example. Now increasingly popular worldwide, this is where multitudes of participants dress themselves in outlandish interpretations of Krampus and take drunkenly to the streets, birch switches in hand, looking to chastise and snatch away anyone unlucky enough to be deemed 'naughty'.
This chaos, sown by goat-like figures certainly tallies with the madness described in encounters with Pan, the very origin of the word 'panic'. The revelry and drunkenness a mirror of the court of satyrs who attended Dionysus, the Greek deity of wine, religious ecstasy and ritual madness. Again not evil but certainly of another world and observing a different scheme of morals. It is these strange qualities that help Krampus stand out amongst Saint Nicholas' assistants, he is perceived as something far removed from the more staid Christian practices.
Much like the majority of celebrations labelled as pagan in the present day, the exact origins of Krampus are entirely speculative. There is very little in the way of actual concrete evidence and more often than not a good story will win out over less glamorous accounts of the truth. There is for example a common theory at the moment that Krampus is tied into Old Norse mythology and the wild hunt. Again there seems to be no actual corroboration to the theory, but it is interesting that stories are still being created and told of Krampus.
Despite his modern day cultural impact, Krampus has on numerous occasions faced opposition in his native Austria. Perhaps it is understandable, given his practice of bundling children into his basket and carrying them off to hell or drowning them if pressed for time, that he has faced a number of moral panics.
By the early 20th century he was becoming more of a lighthearted figure of fun, as the Christmas card tradition began, so too did the Krampuskarten, though usually comical in tone they depicted scenes of violence or on occasion a more sexualised character which drew the ire of the conservative leaders. A concerted effort was made to put an end to Krampus in 1923, when the ruling fascist party banned any representation of the figure, seeming him as deeply un-Catholic, perhaps he and Hellboy have more in common than they imagine?
The wonderfully titled The Krampus is an Evil Man was a pamphlet published in 1953 by a leading educator and head of the Austrian kindergarten system Dr Ernst Kotbauer. In it he, perhaps reasonably, argued that such violent and unsettling imagery may have a serious impact on the development of young children. However despite these attempts the old celebrations are coming back with increasing popularity.
Traditions are clearly significant regardless of how true they are to their origins. They tie us to our homes, our birthplaces. They connect us with our ancestors and those we live alongside. They teach us social lessons or give us space to experiment with those boundaries allowing some of that strange, old world into our own. The exact reproduction of old traditions and ceremonies is close to impossible, what is important is how we interpret them ourselves and how new traditions gain significance.
For example the mighty Gävle Goat, from Sweden. A huge modern day version of the Scandinavian Yule Goat as referenced by Bruttenholm:
No sooner had the tradition begun, of building this giant representation out of straw and steel, than a new tradition emerged: creative and relentless property damage. In the 51 years that the goat has been built, it has survived the winter only 14 times**, succumbing to arson, car impacts, theft and on one occasion being kicked to pieces. It is comforting to know that in the coldest and most inhospitable times we will always find solace in the chaos of the old ways.
“Take thou no scorn to wear the horn,
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father's father wore it,
And thy father bore it”
-William Shakespeare 'As You Like It'
*Caprine means goat-like, it is the second best thing that I learned researching this article.