Move over Grinch, I've got a new favorite Christmas icon.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Krampus.
Krampus doesn't try some hair-brained, outlandish scheme like stealing Christmas. Instead he beats you with a switch before Christmas even comes around.
Turns out the Christmas season can be a scary affair here in central Europe, especially if you've been naughty. I have been quizzing and questioning locals since I first got wind of this devilish dude.
From what I can piece together it seems Krampus and Nikolaus have a good cop / bad cop thing going on. (Nikolaus = St. Nick, but not Santa Claus, more on that later.)
Krampus comes for a visit tonight, 5 December. He is horned, has claws, is covered in fur, dragging chains and carrying some kind of branch with which to inflict punishment. In order to extract assurances of good behavior, his job is to threaten and scare, and maybe hit you with his switch if he deems it necessary.
If you survive this ordeal, and are still intact on 6 December, along comes Nikolaus to smooth things over. Nikolaus distributes fruit and nuts and candy to all the good little girls and boys. Sometimes he puts them in a shoe by the door but I can't really get confirmation of this practice across the board.
Now don't be mixing up Weihnachtsmann (literally Christmas Man) with Nikolaus. St Nick is the one above who is dressed like a bishop, and Weihnachtsmann, or Santa, is the one dressed like, well, Santa.
I'm still a little fuzzy in the details but I think Santa Claus is really just a helper to the Christ child (Christkindl) who flies through a window on Dec 24, usually before dinner, and delivers not only your Christmas tree but also your Christmas presents.
Christkindl appears in the form of an angel, sometimes a baby angel, sometimes a lady angel, but always, people agree, as a being who is all shining and gossamer and beauty and love and peace. (Yawn. I'll take Krampus any day. MUCH more interesting.)
Anyway - to get back on point - as American-style Santa Claus rose in popularity he was folded into the Christkindl story by becoming the angel's helper. What with the flying through windows and the delivering of trees and presents, it's a lot of work.
To sum it all up: Devil comes on December 5th. Scares shit out of you. Saint comes on December 6th. Gives you candy. Baby angel and Santa come on December 24th to deliver the real goodies. That's it, in a nutshell.
But let's get back to Krampus.
On Krampus night, one or two or twenty Krampuses (Krampi?) might wander through your village (depending on how many young, mischievous men there are about) dragging chains and holding torches and screaming and scaring and just causing some light general mayhem.
Since learning about Krampus I have had my eyes peeled for Krampus items I can bring back to the States with me in order to import this legend for the youngsters in my life.
Though that might not be the best idea.
But for all I've looked I've only been able to find a sweet, cuddly, stuffed Krampus who bears a stronger resemblance to Cupid than any kind of devil and who clearly holds zero ability to frighten. Krampus light?
And the Hub and I stumbled on this window display, but he wasn't for sale. So today we go out in search of Christmas devils dragging chains, Krampus toys and general mayhem. Wish us luck!
p.s. For more stories on weird European Christmas legends, and a much better and much funnier essay than above, check out David Sedaris's genius.