Saturday, December 24, 2011
Also known as: Klaubauf, Bartl, Niglobartl, Wubartl, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Gumphinckel, Krampusz
Earliest recorded mention: unknown, but BCE
Major texts: None, really, as Krampus is an oral tradition, but Austrian governments have been trying to discourage belief in the Krampus since at least the 1930s.
While naughty American children might feel mildly anxious about coal in their stockings at Christmas, Austrian and Hungarian children have spent centuries worrying about the Krampus, a forest demon whose stories predate Christ. Krampus doesn't bother with coal in stockings. He whips children with birch switches or drags them off to hell in a tub that he carries on his back.
The world's a dangerous place for children. In the days before electricity and central heating, it was even more dangerous. A child who wandered away from her parents or stayed out too late at night could be lost for good, frozen to death, snatched by evil strangers or mauled to death by wild animals. It only takes three or four days to die of thirst, and not much longer to starve to death in winter. Before floodlights, helicopters, fingerprints or photographs on the back of milk cartons, parents could keep children safe only by emphasizing the dangers of disobedience. These dangers form the basis of many folktales, from Little Red Riding Hood (keep to the path, don't talk to strangers) to Snow White (don't take food from scary old ladies) to Hansel & Gretel (seriously, don't take food from scary old ladies).
Krampus was the parents' tactical nuclear weapon, and too valuable to abandon even once the southern Alps embraced Christianity. Krampus survived as traveling companion to St. Nicholas, dealing with the naughty children as St. Nick hands out candy, nuts and presents to the good ones.
I'm glad I didn't know about Krampus until fairly recently. I was anxious enough as a child, and almost always worked myself into nervous hysteria at some point before every Christmas. Santa Claus, like God, knew all my meanest thoughts and impulses, and kept score of every pinched brother and undone homework assignment. If I'd had Krampus to deal with on top of that, I'd never have made it to adulthood.
Here's wishing you all a Krampus-free holiday, and all the blessings of the season. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.