We horror lovers pretty much celebrate the holidays like any of those "ordinary" people out there – each according to family traditions, personal beliefs, childhood nostalgia, or just a few days' freedom from the office. But some of you may not know there is actually a mythical holiday figure who seems tailor-made for fans of the macabre. The legendary figure of Krampus – a literally devilish character often complete with horns, forked tail and cloven hooves – is apparenltly best buddies with St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who of course evolved into jolly old Santa Claus. According to tradition, St. Nicholas rewarded good little boys and girls with presents and sweets. But when it came to the naughty kids, instead of the standard lump of coal, Nick left the dirty work to his demonic counterpart, who would literally drag the little buggers to hell. I'm totally serious.
Still popular in much of Europe, Krampus is gradually working his way into North American holiday festivities, especially among the horror community. Even the name "Krampus" seems ideal for the world of horror, since it's derived from the old German word "Krampen," meaning "Claw." Just the idea that kids hoping for a present from St. Nick might also be cowering under their beds in fear of "The Claw" is beyond creepy, and I can't believe even more horror fans aren't down with this dude by now. But I'm making it my mission to change all that this year, so allow me to enlighten you a bit.
The origins of Krampus not only predate the Catholic feast of St. Nicholas, but may actually have originated before Christianity even reached Europe. In many cultures he was first portrayed as a primal beast-man, maybe even the European equivalent of the Bigfoot or Yeti legends. Once those regions began converting to Christianity, the character evolved into a fairytale used to scare children into behaving, so they'd get presents from "good cop" St. Nick and avoid a beating – or worse – from his "bad cop" partner. If that seems like a shitty parenting technique, remember that most of the fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm were extremely gruesome in their original form, and were often meant to keep children out of real-life danger.
The best-known depictions of Krampus originated in the Germanic countries, and soon spread throughout most of Eastern Europe and even parts of Italy. Of course, with each different country and culture, the creature would take on different names, looks and habits... such as the Dutch legend "Belsnickel," a hideous, troll-like creature who was also known as Kris Kringle – which today, of course, is just another common name for Santa Claus. I'm kinda skeeved out thinking how I once looked forward to this monstrosity breaking into my house during the wee hours of the night... if I'd known about this tradition when I was six years old, I'd have booby-trapped the hell out of the place. I mean, seriously... this is the guy who "sees you when you're sleeping?"
But assuming you escaped his wrath with your childhood intact, let's slide up to the present day: In Europe, tonight, December 5th, is the traditional Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), which in some communities becomes the December equivalent of a massive Halloween party – but with a very specific theme: lots of devil stuff. Hordes of elaborately-costumed revelers (many of whom look like a cross between Chewbacca and Tim Curry in Legend) take to the streets with torches, pitchforks, scythes and other nasty-looking implements, rattling chains, ringing bells and setting off fireworks, all to commemorate the arrival of a mythical monster who steals children in the night.
Lately, Krampus festivities have migrated to some parts of North America, often coinciding with the night before Christmas instead of St. Nicholas' Eve... or just the enire month of December, which is cool. Along with horror fans who have taken the opportunity to create some amazing Krampus costumes, masks and artwork, many members of the fetish and S&M culture have also embraced the more adult oriented aspects of the character – who has often been depicted on German postcards as having a fondness for spanking young ladies (a tradition called "birching"), and comes ready with his own supply of whips and chains. Yes, we're talking way kinkier concepts than that "Santa's Little Helper" costume you ordered from Frederick's of Hollywood.
Now that you've indulged my little history lesson, I'm hoping you might join me in planning your own crazy Krampus holiday traditions (imagine the decorating possibilities!) and beat those post-Halloween blues. You can get plenty of ideas by visiting the website Krampus.com, "Home of the Holiday Devil," where you can find tons of images, videos, Krampusnacht event postings, and e-cards based on early 20th-century designs. Another great collection of vintage Krampus postcards (including most of the ones shown here) is The Devil in Design by Monte Beauchamp, which is packed with some incredibly twisted and funny images (it's currently out of print though, so it's a little pricey). Just think, another golden opportunity to scare the living crap out of your neighbors again!