Krampus, that dark monstrous creature, cloven-hoofed, horned, hairy, and long-tongued, the antithesis of Saint Nicholas but also his companion, somehow did not make it across the pond with Old St. Nick’s descendant, Santa Claus–actually, he didn’t even make it across the English Channel. I’m not sure why not, except for the fact that he is a repulsive creature, who constrains mischievous children in his basket and carries them off to somewhere bad. So who wants him? Well apparently we do now, with the new Krampus film opening tonight and Krampusnacht festivals on the rise both in the old world (especially his native Austria, Switzerland and Germany) and the new on December 5th, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas. He’s big in Los Angeles now, and Philadelphia, and also apparently Salem: can you imagine a better environment for Krampus than modern Salem?
Krampuses getting reading for Krampusnacht in Stubaital, Austria, 2013, photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images; St. Nicholas bearing gifts and Krampus carting children away, two cards from the Christmas pictures by Raschka series by Raphael Kirchner, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Krampus sneaking into the drawing room behind St. Nicholas, from The Journal of Carl Baumann written 1813-25 by Franz Paumgarrten.
In his latest incarnation, Krampus seems a lot scarier now than he did a century or so ago, when he appeared regularly on Krampuscarten, holiday postcards issued in much of central and eastern Europe. He’s always been a beast, but he was a comical and/or polite one (almost knocking on the parlor door above!) at that time. His origins are somewhat obscure: his appearance mirrors the pagan or Neo-Pagan horned god but also the Christian devil. He seems like the embodiment of assimilated and dualistic Christianity to me, chained to remind everyone that as demonic as he may be, he is still under the command of God. According to all the “sources”, which cite one another but never the primary source, he becomes the companion of St. Nicholas at some point in the seventeenth century, and with the “invention of Christmas” and all of its “traditions” in the nineteenth century he assumes a major role in the festivities. Given his alpine origins, the most creative Krampuscarten are those created in Austria, in particular by the artists working for the Wiener Werkstätte before the First World War. These art nouveau Krampuses are a bit more stylized and whimsical than many of their more generic postcard counterparts, and they tangle with adults as well as children. Once men in Krampus masks begin to appear at the doors of their sweethearts on interwar cards, you know the Krampus has lost his sway.
Krampuscarten by Wiener Werstätte artists Mela Koehler (1911), Arnold Nechanksy (1912) from the Neue Galerie and Josef Diveky (1909), Jutta Sika (1912) and Dora Suppantschitsch (1907), Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Appendix: A “Krampus versus Kringle” window at the Gulu-Gulu Cafe here in Salem snapped by my friend Lance Eaton—he’s going to put it on his own blog, but I’ve got it up first!