- Debra Palmen
Naughty or Nice?
He's making a list, checking it twice; gonna find out who's naughty or nice .....
Have you ever wondered what happens to naughty children at Christmas?
Krampus is what happens.
Everyone is familiar with the jolly fat man in red – Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus – dispensing presents and ho-ho-ho-ing through the season. But in Europe, there’s a more sinister aspect to Christmas, and that’s Krampus the Christmas Demon.
Krampus is a frightening, cloven-hooved demon who walks on his hind legs. He has dark shaggy fur, long sharp horns, and a pointed red tongue. He arrives silently, in the dark of night, to kidnap naughty children and carry them off in a sack to his lair, where he whips them bloody. That’s the festive version. In other accounts, he kidnaps and devours bad children, whose naughtiness makes them especially juicy.
So how did Saint Nicholas and Krampus both come to be connected with Christmas?
The name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch name Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the 4th century. He was a good man, a wealthy man, who used his entire fortune to buy secret gifts for the poor.
Long story short, because of his exceptional kindness to all and sundry, Nicholas was made a Saint. Ultimately, he was adopted as the Patron Saint of children, sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students, which just about covers all and sundry, and his secret gift-giving continued in his Saintly form.
Besides Santa Claus, there are other gift-giving figures who appear in different countries at Christmas time, including:
Baboushka - was an old Russian lady who purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem, so at first, they couldn’t find baby Jesus. Don’t ask why an old Russian lady was lurking in a Middle Eastern desert in the middle of the night at the time of the Holy Birth, misleading strange men on camels – both history and legend are silent on this point. Am I the only one picturing a Monty Python sketch in this?
Baboushka soon regretted her behaviour, but it was too late, the wise men had wandered off and she couldn’t find them to tell them she was only joking. So, in recompense, on 5 January every year, she leaves gifts at the bedsides of all Russian children, hoping one of them is baby Jesus and so she will be forgiven. Don’t even ask how baby Jesus came to be Russian in this story because history and legend are again of no help.
Father Christmas - is the English iteration, who comes to every good child’s home on Christmas Eve to leave gifts in stockings hung by the chimney with care.
Jultomten - is a jolly, obese elf with exceptionally strong goats to draw his sleigh as he delivers presents to well-behaved children in Scandinavia.
Kris Kringle - delivers gifts to dutiful Dutch, German and Swiss children. And Dutch settlers took this name with them when they came to America.
La Befana - is a kind witch who rides around Italy on a broomstick, flying head first down chimneys to leave toys for children who have been compliant and biddable.
Pere Noel - visits well-mannered French children and fills their shoes with gifts. This is the one time of the year when elegant French girls wish for bigger feet.
However, he (or she) is known, a kind, gift-giving figure calls on good children in a variety of cultures. So what of Krampus?
The legend of Krampus originated in the alpine regions of central Europe at least a thousand years ago and is said to have been part of a pagan tradition.
Winter in alpine Europe is a season of long, frozen, black nights; when a milky, weak sun barely makes an appearance during the brief daylight hours. A thousand years ago, winter nights were considered a dangerous time, when witches and faeries, goblins and trolls roamed the countryside. Krampus was one of a melange of demons available to scare children – and everyone else. At the time of the winter solstice, in the dead of night, he would visit households where children had been bad and carry them off for his dinner – or at least whip them raw for being wicked and disobedient.
But by the 17th century, the pagan Krampus had been appropriated to join forces with Christian Saint Nicholas as his dark sidekick, and together they did the rounds on 5 December. Saint Nicholas rewarded good children with gifts and Krampus dispensed merciless justice to the naughty ones. There was no leniency – Krampus made house calls just as Saint Nicholas did and if he came for you, you were a goner.
There’s not a lot to choose from when considering vintage Krampus pieces, and for that reason prices are increasing as he becomes better known around the world. Most of the good quality Krampus collectables on the market originated in Austria and date from around the 1930s.
A modern phenomenon among Krampus collectables are t-shirts featuring his image. Just remember if you’re going to invest in Krampus t-shirts on the chance they increase in value, don't remove them from their original packaging. This is essential. Don’t try them on, even once. Don’t even open the packaging. Just put them in a cupboard and forget about them, because you could be waiting for several decades to see a return on your investment. But it can happen; Vivienne Westwood was a little-known lux-meets-punk fashion designer in the 1970s. Her early t-shirts didn't cost much. Now, an original 1970s Westwood t-shirt, pristine in its original packing, can fetch over $500. So it's a punt to invest in Krampus t-shirts, but it might be one worth making, particularly if you can find one made by an up-and-coming designer label.
Overwhelmingly, it’s ephemera you’ll find when looking for vintage Krampus pieces. There’s a wide range of postcards from Austria and Germany from 1900 to about 1930, often under $20 per card. They’re horrifyingly funny. They feature stereotypically cute small children, over-the-top in their cuteness, being chased, carried off in sacks or baskets, beaten, and sometimes eaten. It’s entirely incorrect to laugh at small children being tortured and eaten, but Krampus looks so hideous and the children look so dimply and cute, with their golden curls and little snub noses, you can’t help but be appalled and laugh at the same time. Exactly as you’re supposed to. And remember, these were bad children. Little wretches. They deserve it.
The full story of Krampus and his collectables is a chapter in Vol 2 of Fabulous Beasts & How to Collect Them. I’m hoping that book will be published later in 2023, but in the meantime, you can have the image of Krampus I've shown here.
There are several ways to get this image:
- purchase a print version (available on the website for $23, which includes postage to anywhere in Australia);
- visit me in person at Peregian Beach Market on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month, where it’s only $15;
- if you buy Vol 1 of Fabulous Beasts & How to Collect Them, I’ll send you an electronic file of this Krampus image, or another image from Volume 1 or 2 that you prefer, for you to use as you wish, for free. You just need to let me know which one you'd like to receive.