Gruß Vom Krampus
NPR ran a story on Krampus “Horror For The Holidays: Meet The Anti Santa” over the weekend, and I feel they just missed the mark, as Krampus is not a Christmas demon or the anti-Santa, but rather a part of the alpine traditions surrounding the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day: December sixth.
My family has celebrated Saint Nicholas Day for generations. Even after my German-speaking ancestors immigrated to this country they kept and adapted the celebrations to a more American sensibility. On the night of December fifth, as a child, I’d hang my stocking, and when I awoke it would be full of chocolate and other things that one might expect as stocking stuffers left by Santa Claus. My stocking, however, had been filled by Saint Nicholas. Santa came at Christmas. As I grew I looked in to this peculiarly Germanic tradition. I now celebrate in my home with setting out my shoes on Nicholas Eve. This year Saint Nicholas left me, along with a generous helping of chocolate, the Book of Concord. Danke Nikolaus! Santa no longer visits my house, but when I return home from Midnight Mass in the wee small hours of the twenty fifth of December I’ll be sure to find at least one gift left by the Christ Child under the tree.
I must admit Saint Nicholas and the traditions around his feast day (including Krampus) are some of my favorite. There’s a fantastic recourse, The Saint Nicholas Center, with months worth of information about the Bishop of Myra: his participation at the Council of Nicaea; how he became the patron of children, virgins, travelers, sailors, and pawnbrokers; and miracles worked through him by the grace of God. There are songs, stories, liturgies, the list goes on. Unfortunately they also discourage the participation of the Saint’s companions in the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day.
Krampus is probably the most confusing of Nicholas’s companions, unless you happen to have grown up in the alpine regions of Austria, and Switzerland, where winter can be a dangerous and mysterious time. Consider that Saint Nicholas Day is a feast day in a season of fasting and preparation for God’s judgment. In church we hear of the end times and in the midst of this come Krampus, und Nikolaus. Krampus is most likely a pre-Christian spirit subdued by the power of Christ in Saint Nicholas. The traditions surrounding Krampus and Krampus-like sprits vary from village to village, town to town and city to city, but…
At one time the young men of a village would have gone out into the early snows after the harvest, and after a day of drinking return to the village, dirty, smelling of schnapps and filth. They would look like men possessed, like demons, like Krampus: hairy, and horny with their tongues hanging out, going door to door demanding that the virgin daughters be handed over. Perhaps this evolved from some sort of fertility ritual.
One of the wonderful things about Christianity is its ability to acculturate folk customs and imbue them with a certain grace. Saint Nicholas as the patron of children and virgins arrives at these late autumn revels in time to rescue children from Krampus. God’s grace steps in. Nicholas may come as a stern father, with questions about a child’s behavior, or their progress in memorizing the catechism, but rather than handing over even the worst children to Krampus, Schmutzli, or Père Fouettard (in France) he is inclined to give them a small sack of oranges or apples and nuts, gingerbread and chocolate coins with stern encouragement to do better next year. Krampus will not be dragging you off to hell today, but memorize the Lord’s Prayer by next year or…
What’s missing from the NPR article as well as the people importing Krampusnacht to the US is the cultural connection. They seem to be looking with a cynical eye to a sanitized Xmas and they want more. As we’ve turned Saint Nicholas in to Santa, Christmas in to Xmas, and sterilized our culture for the “family” we’ve lost a wealth of traditions, and start to look for what’s missing, misconstruing meaningful tradition and creating irony. There has always been dark side to the season, and that darkness is important. The last four things of Advent, Christmas ghost stories (Think “A Christmas Carol”.) and Krampus are all a part of the season that leads up to the birth of Christ. A visit from Saint Nicholas reminds us that the darkness of Krampusnacht gives way to the light to which Nicholas points: The radiance beaming from the face of the Christ Child, surrounded by young men who’ve been watching their sheep, up in the hills, drinking and dirty, now subdued by grace.