In the which-came-first question of Christmas figures between Krampus and Santa, Krampus has been around for centuries. Many different cultures had a version of the Krampus figure, especially in Germanic tradition, where much of our current Christmas practices arose. Most often portrayed as a half-goat, half-demon whose main function was to punish poorly behaving children, Krampus evolved from pre-Christian times to be a counterpart to Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas (later, Santa Claus) gave gifts to good children, but as every boomer knew, he kept a naughty or nice list. In early Germanic tradition, children set a shoe or boot outside their door on St. Nicholas Day (December 6). The next morning, they would be left either a present or a stick. Poorly behaved children could be visited by Krampus that night, whose very presence was intended to scare the bad behavior out of them. Krampus threatened to take bad children away with him, and carried a bundle of birch sticks to swat them. The Catholic church labeled the half-demon a pagan figure and sought to repress the notion and practice of townspeople dressing as Krampus, but the stick in the shoe continued and evolved into the lump of coal most boomers recall from song and maybe in their own lives. Boomers remember when houses had coal bins, so lumps of coal were readily available at least into the early 1960s, when most house furnaces were converted to natural gas. After that point, parents looking to get their children back to the straight and narrow might drop a charcoal briquet into a stocking as a reminder that Santa was watching, so they’d better change their behavior if they wanted a better Christmas gift haul next year.
Mister Boomer and his siblings had an encounter with Krampus one Christmas Eve in the late 1950s when they were visting his paternal grandparents. An uncle and aunt, with their four children, lived with his grandparents at the time. All of the children were under ten years old, with half being under seven. Gathered around the Christmas tree in the living room, the children heard banging and rattling coming from the basement. Mister B’s grandmother was perpetually in the kitchen, either preparing food or cleaning up, so he, his siblings and his cousins ran into the kitchen only to find his grandmother was not there. The door to the basement was in the kitchen, and with a sudden crash it flung open. There stood Krampus, giving a scary moan and swatting the air with a stick that looked like it might have come from the backyard cherry tree. Dressed in an old gray frock similar to a monk’s habit, Krampus had scraggly, long gray hair, pronounced wrinkles, a big nose set between dark eyes and a fierce frown.
Mister B’s cousins and younger sister were terrified, but Mister B’s first thoughts were wondering where his grandmother went, and if this was her, why she might dress up as this character. Brother Boomer had destroyed the Santa myth for him a couple of years earlier, so Mister B had developed a cynical eye at an early age. His first thoughts were quickly interrupted as Krampus looked at each of the kids in the eyes in turn and asked who had been bad while lifting the stick to emphasize swift justice. Waves of doubt and fear ran through Mister B and his siblings as this Krampus did not look, speak or walk like the sweet woman he knew as his grandmother. His cousins got on their knees and clasp their hands in a prayer mode, repeating the entire time that they would be good. Mister B and his siblings were silent and befuddled, not digesting what had happened. Krampus repeated that the children had best be good and disappeared back into the basement, closing the door in one swirling exit motion.
The children were far too afraid to open the door to the basement, and retreated to the living room. Mister B’s cousins told him they had a visit from Krampus every year. Mister B ran the features and demeanor of the character through his brain, and things did not add up. Could his grandmother be so committed to the role as to never sway from character for even a second? How would she have managed a first-class makeup job in so little time? While visions of Krampus still danced in their heads, their grandmother appeared in the living room in what seemed no more than a minute, wiping her hands on her apron as the children had seen her do so many times before. “What was all that noise about,” she inquired, as Mister B’s cousins told their grandmother that Krampus had been there. “Well I hope you will be good, then,” she said and disappeared back to the kitchen.
Today the Krampus figure is being celebrated in many cultures, especially in Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovenia. A variation has even arisen in North Africa and Syria.
How about it, boomers? Was there a Krampus tradition in your house?