Santa Claus meets the “Old Nick”
An Early Christmas Season Reverie
By Dikki-Jo Mullen
At the grocery store today I saw a large red Coca Cola delivery truck parked, with the trademark Santa Claus emblazoned on its side. At the open back door of the truck a Santa Claus venue was appearing. A red carpet, festive trees and a large throne were there and free visits with Santa and portraits were scheduled.
I loved seeing the holiday truck, it evoked so many memories… Hot chocolate and cookies. I remember Santa leaving a Thank you note on Christmas mornings long ago for the plate I had left for him as a child. A few weeks earlier on December 5-6 St. Nick would have come, strewing nuts and oranges in a trail leading to a small sack of treats or decorative stocking. The legend at our house always was that if St. Nick came on St. Nicholas’ Eve then I had been good enough all year to expect Santa on the 25th of the month. Oddly, St. Nick and Santa were seen as the same and yet not the same. Today the mystery deepens. Visits from St. Nick have taken on a new dimension. Tonight I have been thinking of what to leave St. Nick. He has become Krampus during the 21st Century, if indeed he was ever anyone else. At the produce stand I found some purple-black potatoes. They are sinister, yet taste just like small red potatoes. I bought some to boil. All of the accounts of Krampus indicate that his is a mean alcoholic with a preference for schnapps or other hard liquor… . . His dinner plate is ready now. With all of the strange situations in the world I feel the need to placate this evil twin or doppelganger of Jolly Old St. Nick.
A switch and a lump of coal on St. Nick‘s Eve. By the early 20th Century the threat had become mostly a joke. On the Eve of December 5th or 6th St. Nicklaus would visit, children were told. If they had been good all year then gifts of candies, nuts and fruit and would be found in the morning, perhaps in their stockings or shoes. The baddies, the naughty ones, might expect to be punished with a switch and a lump of coal instead. No one ever was though. It was almost unheard of for the good St. Nick, visualized as a jolly old elf, to disappoint anyone. He foreshadowed the arrival of Santa Claus in a few weeks time. St. Nick’s visit piqued the excitement and anticipation of Christmas, promising the larger presents to come.
As the 1990’s faded into the early 21st Century a change began to sweep over annual winter solstice celebrations. A yearning for a darker holiday emerged. Perhaps it indicated a need to offset an excess of sweetness and light. Perhaps a secret resentment was building as children became increasingly spoiled and dissatisfied. Santarchy was born. The phenomenon appeared in 1994 in West Coast U.S. cities such as Portland, Oregon and San Francisco. A huge flash mob of costumed and sinister Santa Clauses invaded shopping malls and public parks. In early December the mysterious clan would come together to frighten and puzzle the unsuspecting public. The Santarchy craze currently has spread to Korea, Norway, Ireland and other countries. It actually is a revival of more ancient seasonal traditions. Smoldering in the dark crevices, deep in the fire place, behind the merrily burning Yule log and within the branches of Christmas trees, hidden by the ornaments and lights, lurks the spirit of Krampus. Also known as “Old Nick” or the devil, Krampus is the evil twin who shadows the benevolent Saint Nicklaus. He has been here, waiting and watching for a very long time. While kindly Santa appreciates cookies and hot chocolate, Krampus prefers schnapps, a strong liquor.
Hairy and beastlike, Krampus is black or brown in color, with a long, lolling tongue, goat- like horns and cloven hoofs. He carries a whip or a bundle of birch twigs in one claw like hand and dramatically rings a bell or thrashes rusty chains in the other. Sometimes he’s an elegant yet very sinister gentleman instead, clothed all in black. Like Santa Claus, Krampus carries a large sack over one shoulder, but rather being filled with toys, his is to carry away bad children for drowning or transportation to his den where they might be burned in a coal fire.
Krampus Throughout History
The legend of Krampus really predates that of St. Nicklaus. About four thousand years ago “The Epic of Gilgamesh” introduced Enkidu, literature’s first “ Wild Beast Man”. By the 3rd Century BCE Saturnalia was celebrated at the winter solstice in Rome. Wild and frightening satyr like characters presided over the revelry which ensued when master and slave roles were reversed by holiday makers.
By the 4th Century CE Germanic tribes in the alpine regions of Europe clung to the remnants of their pagan traditions even as they began to embrace Christianity. Old Man Winter frequented holiday gatherings. About 1250 CE “King’s Mirror”, a Norwegian manuscript, told of a mean and hairy demon who wandered in the snowy forest. During the winter evenings people practiced mummery, the creation of humorous plays. They would dress up, masking as wild creatures, animals and mythological figures. An evil force, known by many names through the centuries, was an important part of the amusement.
Krampus first paired with the white robed bishop, St. Nicklaus, sometime during the 1600’s in a Christmas procession in Nuremburg, Germany. By the late 19th Century Krampus was a regular part of holiday gatherings . Young celebrants, usually male, would dress up in hideous attire, bearing torches and carousing through the streets to terrify young and old alike. Post cards from the 1800’s featuring Krampus images exploded in popularity. Their subtle comedy combined humorous and surreal art with a primordial horror. “Grub Vom Krampus” (greetings from Krampus) was often the message.
In the late 1800’s in New York City St. Nick arrived as a beloved red suited Santa Claus, yet Krampus hovered in the background. The evil one appeared at “Pelznickle” traditions celebrated at Christmas time by Dutch and German immigrants in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Indiana.
Krampus, the punisher, continued to rein supreme as a part of European holiday celebrations, especially in Germany and Austria.
During the 1930’s – 1950’s the Austrian and German governments denounced Krampus. He was reviled in pamphlets and gradually faded from the scene. Now he’s returned, if indeed he ever left. Horror novelist Dean Koontz has written “Santa’s Twin”, Krampus greeting cards have become valuable collectibles. His holiday season has come to the movies in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
So as the solstice nears, consider the consequences of your actions during the past year carefully as you hum a holiday tune.
“You better watch out, You better not cry, You better be good, I’m telling you why … Santa Claus is coming to town …”
A special Thanks to “The Witches’ Almanac” for their gracious permission to reprint parts of this feature which first appeared in The Almanac.;