When I was a kid I was TERRIFIED of Santa Claus.
I liked the idea of Santa — a guy whose JOB it was to bring me presents — but the "reality" of Santa, in the form of some guy in a dingy red suit outside of JC Penney's horrified me. I did NOT want to sit in that guy's lap.
I honestly don't remember a time when the holly-jolly Santa myth was a "thing" in our home. My no-nonsense, Chinese mom, try as she might, just couldn't bring herself to do the whole Santa song and dance.
I'd go through the motions of writing a "Letter to Santa" and give it to my mom to "send" to the North Pole (because that's what the "normal" kids were doing), knowing full well that I'd probably find it being used as a bookmark in one of my mom's books on "animal ESP" or "embracing menopause."
Gifts would bear tags where the "from" would have "Mom and Dad" scratched out (poorly), and "Santa Claus" or just "SC" scribbled in.
One year, after dutifully giving my mom my Santa letter, she just looked at me, grimaced and asked, "Do you really believe in this stuff?" I must have exhaled a childhood's worth of anxiety when I said no, because she just laughed, and so did I. It was a relief.
Yet despite my mom's unwillingness to play the Santa game, she tried for YEARS to get me to take a picture with Santa at the mall. THIS was the Santa I feared. (I've since asked my mom why she did this, she just frowns and says, "I don't know. You were a kid. That's what Americans do to their kids.")
Every Christmas until I was seven years old, we'd go the mall so I could have a mini-panic attack, cry, and nearly pee on Santa. Something about that Santa — WHO WE ALL KNEW WASN'T SANTA — sent a chill down my spine.
Smelling of acrylic and sweat, his puffy face "jollied up" with blush and drawn-on wrinkles, the mall Santa reminded me of the "winos" in the park in Chinatown that my mom told me to stay away from. His lap always felt too warm. I was positive that puffy, sweaty, mall Santa was going to kidnap me.
While I had mall Santas to worry about, kids in Europe had Krampus. And they didn't even have to sit on his lap.
Who is Krampus?
More than the monster who sets out to teach Adam Scott and Toni Collette's family a lesson in the recent movie Krampus (which I have not seen, have you?), the legend of Krampus is meant to frighten children into good behavior — OR ELSE.
Krampus is way scarier than a lump of coal.
Known across Europe, specifically in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, Krampus originated as a pre-Christian figure in Norse and Alpine traditions and Germanic paganism. In Norse mythology, Krampus is son of Hel, who is the daughter of Loki and overseer of the land of the dead, and helps to balance good with evil.
Though the look of Krampus has become consistently that of a horned, hooved, "satyr-like" monster wielding chains, bells, and switches, the earliest Krampi (Krampusses?) didn't really have a prescribed appearance. The only consistency seems to be that of some sort of claw, as Krampus is derived from the German krampen meaning "claw."
Before vague written accounts in the 17th century mentioning horns and fur, adults dressing up like Krampus in order to scare their children into being good probably just used whatever was available to them. Goat pelts, hay, whatever — Krampus was less about form and more about function.
And how exactly does Krampus carry out that function?
Since being adopted by Christian tradition, Krampus has been depicted as the bad cop to St. Nicholas' good cop. While St. Nicholas rewards good children with gifts in their shoes on December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, he tells his old pal Krampus about the bad kids ahead of time so Krampus can do his thing on December 5th or Krampusnacht (Krampus Night).
How often do you think little Alpine kids freak the hell out when they hear an unexpected knock at the door on the night of December 5th?
Krampus then shows up at a bad child's home, bells jingling (from the Pagan practice where bells would summon or chase away both good and bad spirits) and birch branch whips at the ready.
The bad child is beaten with the branches, packed into a basket, washtub, or sack, then whisked off to Krampus' lair in the underworld. There the child will have to endure torture for a whole year or, if Krampus is in the mood, just get eaten. Krampus is a fickle beast.
And just in case your little Hungarian or German kid thinks he or she is too cool for Krampus, modern celebrations of Krampus Night include Krampus processions in the streets or a Krampuslauf or "Krampus run." Adults in the Alpine area (and now all over the world including the US!) decked out in all manner of Krampus costume, snarl through the streets, rattling chains and chasing children.
Yes Jannik, there is a Krampus. Nothing says Christmas like the possibility of being dragged off to Hell.
And as an extra reminder to kids that they'd BETTER NOT POUT, Krampus postcards have been around since the 1800s. What if you got this in the mail instead of your great uncle Gef's family newsletter? (Next year's Creepy Corner Christmas card?)
I like that the little girl in the postcard is just hanging with her apples while her brother regrets cheating at marbles.
Are you going to make Krampus a part of your holiday celebration next year? Have any of you ever participated in Krampus-related festivities? Any Krampuslauf people out there?
Did any of you see the Krampus movie? What did you think?
And most importantly, who else was afraid of mall Santas? Am I alone in thinking most kids are?