When I was a kid, my parent “rented” a Krampus once. I guess my sister and I were a particular pain that year. All I remember was my dad opening the door, the shadow of the creature in the doorway, the rattling of the chain; and myself under the dining room table. How I made it there from the entry hall is still a mystery to me, more than four decades later. I must have been so fast that my brain could not record it to memory.
The second mystery is why I thought that “under the dining room table” was a particularly safe place.
Anyway, that was then and this is now, I have kids myself now, but they are not afraid of Krampus.
But who is that figure, and where could he have come from?
One of the downsides of ancient Celtic belief, that knowledge penned to paper is dead knowledge, is that we are not 100% sure when they considered the beginning of the New Year to be. Much has led scholars to believe that it was Samhain, the “end of summer,” that was also the start of a new year. Another school of thought places the Celtic New Year at the Winter Solstice, when the new light is born. Who am I to rule on that, but here is what I am mulling over: What if the old year did end at Samhain, and the new one did start after the longest night of the year, some 40 days later.
And the period between these two marker days may just have been one of the between and betwixt times so revered by our forebears. It is, we have to admit, quite a time of transition. The leaves fall, many plants withdraw from the surface to join the All-Mother in her dark bed-chamber, and fog, the veil to the Otherworld, creeps over fields and hovers in the bare branches of now sleeping trees.
During this time, a dark creature visits villages and towns in the Alps and in bordering North Italy, Hungary, and Kroatia on December 5th. Krampus, we call him, a name most probably coming from the middle-high German word KRAMPEN, which is still used widely in dialect to describe a pickax as well as an ugly person. Originally, it was a term for “claw.”
The custom was forbidden during the inquisition, so it was already common practice in the 12th century CE. The question is: how much older is it? Well, I personally find it hard to believe that medieval folk came up with the idea to dress in furry suits and put on a horned mask. Yes, medieval attire was somewhat weird, but when you look at the Krampus, you can’t but place it in pagan, pre-Christian times.
Many claim a resemblance with the Christian devil, but I am asking myself: Wasn’t Lucifer a fallen angel ? Angels look a bit different than that. But compare the creature to the antique faun, and you may be much closer to the origin of that visual. And we all know the connection between the devil and our revered Cernunnos!
Nowadays, clubs called “Pass” dedicated to the upholding of folk customs organize Krampus-runs, a festive occasion usually held in the center of the villages. Booths where they sell mulled wine, ginger bread, and other treats line the town plazas, and spectators gather in anxious anticipation – particularly the kids. When it’s dark and the air is filled with holiday smells and cheer, you hear the first sounds of the arrival of the Krampus. Huge bells affixed to their backs give a distinct sound in the rhythm of their dancelike steps. Shrieking and fire crackers add to the wall of noise emerging from a dark side street together with the fierce creatures.
They run up to the spectators, hit the teenage boys and girls with their horse tail whips, and do all kinds of crazy moves, some of them obscener than others. Kids like my son would follow them, challenge them with words and gestures, and then run, screaming at the top of their voices, to avoid being whipped. What fun…while I have another sip of my steaming mulled wine.
All this had, of course, a deeper meaning. The masks and costumes are made over the summer in secrecy. In the olden days, that allowed the young men dressed up as Krampus to whip anyone, no matter their social status. So, even the local nobility or business persons weren’t safe from being publicly punished for their immoral deeds throughout the year.
But hey, if you’re conscience is clear and you did no harm this past year, you don’t have to fear anything…