Thursday, December 02, 2010

Culture Shock 12.02.10: Keeping the Krampus in Christmas

Editor's note: This column was originally published Dec. 3, 2009.

An old tradition that's seeing renewed popularity amounts to Christmas' own version of the good cop/bad cop routine.

The good cop is Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, aka St. Nicholas, aka Father Christmas. He's the "jolly old elf" known for his vast, global surveillance system — which he uses to keep track of who's been "naughty" and who's been "nice" — and his knack for breaking and entering.

Everyone has heard of Santa. But probably few have heard of his partner, the "bad cop" in our little tale. He goes by the name Krampus.

A scary, devilish, goat-like fellow with long horns and a bad attitude, Krampus originated centuries ago in German-speaking areas of Europe, where he was especially popular in the Alps.

While Santa bribes children into good behavior with the promise of presents, Krampus keeps them in line with threats of punishment. Santa carries a bag full of toys. Krampus carries a bag filled with naughty boys and girls.

Christmas is rife with Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, some of which, in different forms, go back to pagan solstice celebrations that predate Christianity's arrival in northern Europe. Evergreen trees, Yule logs and mistletoe come to mind. Long before people used mistletoe to steal kisses from the unwary, the plant was best known for killing Baldr, the Norse god of light and beauty.

As years passed, these traditions became part of Christmas, as did, for a while at least, Krampus. But Krampus was perhaps just a bit too wild to settle down in what was becoming an increasingly Christian holiday season. As National Geographic blogger Marc Silver writes, by the 1800s church leaders had marginalized Krampus, making St. Nick a solo act.

By the time German Christmas traditions made their way to England, and later America, Krampus was no longer a major part of the festivities.

Anglo-American Christmas celebrations began adopting German customs like Christmas trees in the 1800s, after Great Britain had resorted to importing monarchs from Germany. German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria's marriage to the German-born Prince Albert.

By the time Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1843, Christmas looked much like it does now, with no Krampus in sight.

Ebenezer Scrooge had to get by with three Christmas ghosts instead — or four, if you count Jacob Marley.

That, however, has started to change.

According to Silver, the Austrian state of Salzburg now has more than 180 Krampus clubs devoted to celebrating the long-lost Christmas figure.

Most have sprung up in just the past 20 years.

Now, every Dec. 5, club members recreate the traditional Krampus celebration. They dress in ghoulish Krampus costumes and head out for a night of carousing, which sounds a lot like how adults currently celebrate Halloween in the United States.

Here in America, Krampus is still virtually unknown. And if he weren't, he would add a new wrinkle to the annual debate about the true meaning of Christmas.

But with the Christmas season now starting even before Thanksgiving, maybe there is room for one more Christmas tradition. You don't want to end up on Krampus' list, do you?

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