Krampus: The German Christmas Demon
by Annie Riordan
[Mike notices a sign that says “Gifts From Germany.”]
Mike: Gifts From Germany? What’s that? Braunschweiger, cars with heaters that don’t work, and identification papers?
~ Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Episode 906
“Leave it to the Krauts.” was all my mom had to say when I told her what the subject of my December Cinematic Haunts was to be. And mom should know: she IS a Kraut, raised in a Pennsylvania Deutsch farmhouse that reeked of sauerkraut, was covered in dog hair and contained a Black Forest cuckoo clock that counted off the dismal hours one by one. I lived there for a while myself. It was a dark house, cold and weighed down with tschotke both tacky and quaint. There were toads in the cellar, mice in the closets and Catholic idolatry everywhere. My grandparents were so goddamned German I’m surprised they didn’t go around in lederhosen and cram me into a dirndl for my first day of kindergarten, and so mercilessly Catholic that they much preferred to suffer in a marriage gone sour than seek a divorce. But if nothing else, they were good to their grandchildren of which there were five, myself being the youngest. Grandma Olga spoiled me rotten, bestowing upon me anything that caught my eye, hence why my bookshelves are currently weighed down beneath much of the same tschotke I spoke of earlier.
Christmas was my grandma’s absolute favorite holiday, and every year out came box after box of Christmas decorations, from elegant spun glass crystal-sugar-dusted marzipan fruits to a godawful Santa Claus toilet seat cover that played “Jingle Bells” when you lifted the lid to pee. As a child, I was never threatened with a gift of coal in my stocking if I was bad, maybe because I was the favored blue-eyed granddaughter, more likely because I was such a happy, suckass good little girl that it was sickening. I never got into trouble; I saved that for adolescence.
My grandparents never mentioned the Krampus. neither to me and my sister, our three cousins or to my mother when she was a kid. Possibly, they didn’t know about it either. I didn’t hear about it until maybe two or three years ago, which seems odd to me. I’m of German descent and have always been drawn to the morbid, the twisted and the profane. How could I have gone so long without hearing about Krampus? If you’d asked me about Krampus a decade earlier, I would have told you it was something I suffered from once a month.
Having received his name from the Old High German word “krampen” which literally means “claw,” Krampus was said to have been a horned deity who roamed the pre-Christian wilderness of Europe, not unlike the fauns and satyrs of Greek myth. Once Christianity made its way into the rural Alp regions and decided that anything with horns and hooves was evil (party poopers), Krampus was demoted from deity to demon, a creature from Hell to be feared rather than a natural being from an ancient race which pre-dated man. Krampus was also associated with the Incubi, a demon who comes to sleeping women and engages them in sexual intercourse.
When the tradition of Christmas gained a strong foothold, Krampus was reprieved from his exile and granted a new purpose: the companion of Saint Nicholas, sort of like his evil twin. Given the reputation of the German people for being dour and taciturn, it’s not very surprising that parents used the Krampus to scare the shit out of their children, warning them that if they did not behave, the Krampus would come for them. Rather than having gifts of toys and food bestowed upon them by a kindly old gent in a red suit (no, not Truman Capote) they would instead receive a visit from a horned and hairy monster who would beat them with whips, twigs and rusty chains.
Hmm. Horns, fur, whips, chains…Krampus sounds like a fun date, actually. And in keeping with his incubi and satyr-ish origins, the Krampus has a distinct preference for young girls. On Krampusnacht, a festival which is still celebrated in the remote villages of the Alps and culminates on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day (December 6th), young women are advised to stay off the streets in order to avoid being flogged by bands of whip-wielding young men, dressed in shaggy sheepskins, elaborately carved wooden masks and rams horns. But c’mon, let’s be real: I’m sure young girls living in remote regions of Eastern Europe are used to trying to avoid having their asses swatted every day of the year by hairy, lecherous old men who smell like drunken goats. Sounds like a goddamned family reunion to me.
In the late 19th century/early 20th century, Krampus began appearing on holiday cards, garishly depicted tormenting women and terrifying crying children. The sexual overtones were blatant (my personal favorite being the card picturing a young girl on her knees before the lewdly grinning demon) and the cards made a huge resurgence once more at the beginning of the 21st century. Krampus was back in style in a big, big way. Lost for the better part of a century, Krampusnacht is the In Thing to do these days with everything from Krampus e-cards to Krampusnacht parties in San Francisco. Yeah, leave it to us liberal NorCal Bay Area weirdos to find yet another excuse to party.
In fact, Krampusnacht, both locally and abroad, has become another excuse to get shitfaced-drunk and very naughty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If it weren’t for the occasional spurt of drunken naughtiness, we’d all explode…especially us rigorous German Catholics with our staunch work ethics, our stoic reputations and our smelly cabbage. Travel to the remote villages of Austria, southern Germany, northern Italy and/or Switzerland in early December and you just may find yourself treated to the sight of a dozen or more inebriated Krampus’s walking the streets and hanging out in the town square where Krampus-shaped breads are baked and sold, pretending to snatch children and aiming their whips at anyone who gets too close. And from the many articles I’ve been perusing online lately, it sounds like being vomited on by a booze-soaked Krampus is more likely than being whipped by one these days.
Recently, Krampus was the recipient of the famed “Colbert Bump” when popular sex-pants pundit Stephen Colbert had the Hairy One drop by his show on December 9th, 2009, complete with flailing chains and German curses, smashing Colbert’s cookie plate to smithereens. It was the most memorable episode of the Colbert Report since Cookie Monster dropped by in the summer of ‘08. If Krampus wasn’t cool before, he sure as hell is now because Stephen Colbert says so…and goddamn him for scooping my December story, that bastard. Isn’t it bad enough that he refuses to have sex with me just because he’s married? (Colbert, that is – not Krampus)
Krampus, having survived religious persecution and many a nasty hangover, is undoubtedly here to stay. And as the resident descendant of many a delusional, drunken Kraut, I will gladly say “You’re welcome!” A Merry Krampusnacht to all, and may all of your jolly holiday apparel be vomit-proof.