Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Rise, Fall, Rise, Fall and slow Rise of Krampus

Happy Krampusnacht!  

The morning rush is over and I have my cup of tea.  Time to finish up the history of Krampus as I know it.  

Krampus’ rise and fall in popularity is almost as difficult to trace as his origin.  We know there were celebrations of St. Nicholas and his sidekick Krampus until the 1600’s.  At that time the Puritans made it illegal to mention St. Nicolas' name. People were not allowed to exchange gifts, light a candle, or sing carols.  The Lutheran Church, instead, presented a ‘Christ Child’ figure in place of the Catholic St. Nicholas.   St. Nicholas and Krampus went underground.

Then in the 1800’s, Krampus and St. Nicholas began to reemerge.

In 1804, The New York Historical Society was founded with St. Nicolas as its patron saint. Its members engaged in the Dutch practice of gift-giving at Christmas.

 Saint Nicholas or "Sancte Claus," in a woodcut by Alexander Anderson done for the New York Historical Society.

In 1810, the Brothers Grimm began publishing stories of Germanic folktales, marking a resurgence in Germanic pagan folklore.

Also during this time, Great Britain resorted to importing non-Catholic monarchs from Germany.  Hence, more German customs were starting to appear in Anglo Christmas celebrations.  German practices became even more prominent following Queen Victoria’s marriage to the 
German-born Prince Albert in 1840.

Krampus really hit his stride in the late 1800’s with the invention of color printing.  This is when the exchanging Christmas cards really took off and Krampus became a Christmas icon. He appeared on cards that were sent on the Eve of St. Nicholas.  German-speaking people around the world took to sending their friends and children postcards that featured the Krampus on them.  And in most cases, the cards would bare the same, haunting phrase;  GRUSS VOM KRAMPUS.  Translation:  Greetings From Krampus.  The message was intended to be a humorous reminder to be good, otherwise Krampus would have to come visit you in person that year.  

Krampus fell on some hard times in the early 1900’s.  World War I put an end to the Krampus postcard fad when the import of German greeting cards came to a halt.  In the 1930’s, when the fascists rose to power, popular holiday parties called "Krampus Balls" and depictions of Krampus in Austria and Germany became strictly forbidden.  

But after the war, Krampus returned to Europe.  And thanks to mounting holiday commercialism. Krampus was thrust back into the European mainstream with renewed vitality; our own little Krampus miracle.

While there were major movements in Austria to suppress the Krampus traditions stating that it was harmful to children, it endured but not unchanged. While older images a had more frightening and brutal images of Krampus - often looming menacingly over children, the post –war portray a more playful image of Krampus.

This lead to the lurid images being suffused with a sense of the comic and the surreal.  Krampus slowly became associated with the naughty side of the season, the sexy subtext of these very cheeky cards is hard to ignore.  By the time of the 1960's KRAMPUS became more associated with adults and sex (much like a St. Valentine's Day devil) and postcards of that time often portray him leering at or enticing nubile young women. 

Currently, Krampus is more popular than ever in Europe.  Each year on December 5th, young men in Eastern Europe dress in amazing and horrifyingly realistic Krampus costumes and participate in events knows as krampuslaufs (Krampus Runs.)  Hundreds of Krampuses rampage through the streets carrying torches and swinging cowbells, sticks and chains.  At the end of the parade, Saint Nicolas himself appears to get the monsters under control and hand out gifts to the good boys and girls in the crowd.  These bizarre parades are ensuring that the children of the 21st century will grow up with found (and slightly twisted) memories of both Saint Nick and his side kick  Krampus.

...and one day I will get Mr. Fleam to let me tag along to one of the Krampus run in Austria!

1 comment:

  1. My old home town could use an infusion of tradition to spark business during the season. Along with the tree lighting, a good old Krampusnacht would certainly bring patronage to the town.