(Photo from Pixabay)
Christmas is coming, and with it all the traditions that go with this time of year. Traditions vary massively around the world, and some of the most interesting come from Europe.
My family has ties to Austria and when I was growing up, one of the traditions I learned was that of Krampus.
Krampus is half-goat, half-human. He seeks out children who have misbehaved and punishes them by leaving them coal or giving them a quick whip with his switch of birch twigs or his chains. He usually hangs out with St Nicholas, who is the original Santa. Krampus is one of his companions, so if you want to, just think of him as a really scary elf. His origins are from way back in Alpine folklore, and I read somewhere that he might have originated from the stories of the house spirits… which does include elves so yes, he is basically a really big, scary elf. And let’s not forget his sack or basket, which in some traditions are for carrying off the naughty children.
St Nicholas’ feast day is today (December 6th) and the evening of December 5th is Krampusnacht. Over in Austria, this is a time for celebration. Young men dress up as Krampus, get a little merry on schnapps and go around scaring people. It’s pretty harmless, although it can be a bit sinister if you’re a child. There are chocolates in the shape of Krampus and St Nicholas to be had, and plush Krampuses (Krampi?) are also a Thing – check Etsy for some really adorable ones.
Another tradition from this time of year is Perchta. She’s an old goddess, who was said to roam during midwinter, and leave a reward for those who had been good. If you hadn’t been good, she wouldn’t just carry you off – she’d pretty much kill you. Take a look at the Wikipedia article about her here. Krampus seems like a big cuddly kitten in comparison to Perchta.
As a child, these legends are remarkably effective in scaring you into behaving nicely. ‘If you don’t behave then Krampus will take you away’. Now, of course, it’s ‘if you’re bad then Santa won’t come’. The Santa tradition we have now has its roots in all these old traditions, and it is very different and the kids know that even if they’re bad, they’ll still get presents. There’s no scary goat-man waiting to haul them off in a bag if they’ve misbehaved. I sometimes think that we need an anti-Santa for these modern times, but I’m not sure what form it would take.
I like to imagine what it must have been like during the dark of midwinter, huddled in a wooden cabin in the mountains or forest, listening to your elders telling sinister tales of Krampus and Perchta by firelight. I think modern Christmas traditions have lost that slightly dark element – don’t forget the timing of Christmas coincides with the pagan winter solstice festival of Yule, and it’s only known as Christmas because the pagan and Christian traditions merged.
I think it’s a shame the old traditions are fading – the old pagan traditions of continental Europe fascinate me. I consider myself lucky to have been brought up in a family who made sure I knew of Krampus and Perchta, and if I have children, I’ll make sure they know the legends as well.
So if you hear hooves on your roof, the clank of chains or the whisper of birch twigs in the dark, consider if you’ve been good this year. If you haven’t, Krampus and Perchta are ready for you.
(And a final recommendation – do check out the Krampus movie, if you’ve not yet seen it. It’s a comedy horror, but the way they’ve depicted Krampus is straight out of the nightmares of my childhood. It’s worth a watch!)