This year, my daughter’s third-grade class was asked to bring in parents to share family holiday traditions. One of the things my extended family has enjoyed doing over the past four years is singing this “Here Comes Krampus” song when we get together between the solstice and the new year. And so with posterboard in hand I told the third grade class about Krampus, the Alpine trickster spirit who in modern times accompanies St. Nicholas and who punishes naughty children by swatting them with birch switches, putting them in his sack and tossing them in a cold stream.
We started out with the familiar. I asked the children if they thought Santa Claus was a good guy or a bad guy — the unanimous, enthusiastic answer was “good guy.” Then we sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and looked at the lyrics; there’s a kind of creepy side to this Santa involving surveillance and punishment. And that was the point at which I brought in Krampus, who in Europe accompanies St. Nicholas and doles out punishment. To convince the children that I wasn’t making it up, and to talk about Krampus in terms of tradition, I showed them this video of Krampus and accompanying Buttnmandl dressed in straw from Berchtesgaden, Germany:
Krampus and the Buttnmandl are part of a larger mumming tradition that is older than the St. Nick story and that stretches more broadly from the British Isles to Bulgaria. Dimo Dimov connects Krampus to mummery. At the summer solstice and the winter solstice, mummers mark the change from darkness to light, from chill to warm. Dimov writes, “The special marks of the mummers are huge bells, wooden and leather animal, demon and spirit masks, natural materials and clothes like wool, wood, cones, moss and roots. Spreading fright and blessings is the main theme of those creatures, who are an important part of the rural landscape.”
“I know another name for him,” said one of the children, raising her hand. “He’s the devil, isn’t he?” I replied, “Well, he has horns like the devil, doesn’t he? But not everything that has horns is a devil.” The more subtle answer I didn’t give is that Europe has been a religious battleground between Christianity and older pagan traditions. What better way to push away mythic competition than to take pre-existing figures and brand then as “devils?” Indeed, as this web page from Salzburg notes, the Krampus tradition was banned outright by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. But the tradition has survived in Europe and is spreading again beyond its original borders.
Full credit to my daughter’s teacher, who not only tolerated but welcomed sharing a tradition about this “devil” in her classroom. We ended by singing the chorus of the Krampus song: “Here comes Krampus, here comes Krampus, ja, ja, ja, ja, ja!”