Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Here we are once again in the season of Advent, hurtling toward Christmas. In the church calendar this day is dedicated to good St. Nicholas, otherwise known as Father Christmas or Santa.

But did you know Saint Nick once had a diabolical travelling companion?

This seasonal posting first takes us back to November when I uploaded my Prague holiday photos, in particular the above snap of what I thought were figures of the Devil and St. Nicholas on display side by side in Prague's Toy Museum. At the time I couldn't guess why the two should be associated....

Thanks to an email from Comics Comics magazine cover star and ace cartoonist Pshaw, I now know who the devilish figure from Eastern European legend is. "That's Krampus! He's my favourite Christmas character" Pshaw wrote. He explained further: "Over the centuries, the legend of the good St.Nicholas grew. As a friend of all children he would give them special gifts and food. In the past he rewarded only their good behaviour because he travelled with a cloven-hoofed demon who knew who had been bad. Stories vary, but typically Krampus was a dark, shaggy monster with horns, a tail and a long red tongue who rattled iron chains! St.Nicholas would arrive with a full sack of toys and Krampus brought an empty basket to carry away boys and girls for punishment."

Phew, personally I think it's only fair that kids should be deprived of their Playstation gifts if they've been wicked...don't you?

1 comment:

PShaw said...

Often the subject of winter tales, Krampus [and various other manifestations] travel with St. Nicholas or his various equivalents [Father Christmas, Kris Kringle], carrying with them a rod (sometimes a stick, bundle of switches or a whip, and in modern times often a broom) and a sack or basket. They are sometimes dressed in black rags, a scarf, or red ribbon kerchief, bearing a sooty face and unruly black hair. In many contemporary portrayals the companions look like dark, sinister, or rustic versions of Nicholas himself, with a similar costume but with a darker color scheme.
Some of the companions take on more monstrous forms. Krampus and Klaubauf are variously depicted as horned, shaggy, bestial, or demonic. In many depictions the Krampus looks like popular images of the Devil, complete with red skin, cloven hooves, short horns and a long slender tongue. It is unclear whether the various companions of St. Nicholas are all expressions of a single tradition (likely Knecht Ruprecht), or a conflation of multiple traditions. Various texts, especially those outside the tradition, often treat the companions as variations on a single Knecht Ruprecht tradition.
According to some stories, Krampus is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises from childhood. He sometimes walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. Often, his black clothes and dirty face are attributed to the soot he collects as he goes down chimneys.
In some of the traditions the children would be summoned to the door to perform tricks, such as a dance or singing a song to impress upon Nicholas and Krampus that they were indeed good children. Those who performed badly would be beaten soundly with a switch or taken away in a basket, and those who performed well were given a gift or some treats like muffins, oranges or nuts. Those who performed badly enough or had committed other misdeeds throughout the year were put into Krampus's basket and taken away for punishment, or to be tossed into a river. [you better watch out!] In other versions the children must be asleep, and would either awake to find their shoes filled with sweets if they were good, or a lump of coal for not so good.
In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are (typically children of poor families), roamed the streets and sledding hills during the festival. They wore black rags and masks, dragging chains behind them, and occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusumzüge (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.