Thursday, December 6, 2012

Beware the Krampus

Today is St. Nicholas Day, which means last night was Krampusnacht, the night when a man-beast with shaggy fur, goat horns, one cloven hoof and one man's foot and a drooping long red tongue roams the land in search of naughty children in order to (depending on which version you prefer) whip them with willow switches or throw them in his iron basket and either take them back to his cave to devour them or throw them into the fiery pits of hell.

In the European Alps, they hold Krampuslaufen on December 5, where men dress up in firs and horns and run through the villages ringing cow bells and terrorizing the children into good behavior in time for St. Nicholas to arrive bearing gifts. This is the part of the world my ancestors come from, so I have a soft spot for Krampus (I see him as a sort a tragic character; a misunderstood monster). Also, I appreciate his Pagan counterpoint to the distinctly religious aspects of St. Nicholas.

I'd love to go to Austria this time of year, both to go shopping at the Christmas markets and to witness the spectacle of the Krampuslaufen. I still have (distant) relatives there; maybe they will let me come visit some St. Nicholas Day. In the meantime, I threaten my kids with tales of Krampus when they misbehave this time of year (in addition to the newly-instituted "Christmas is Cancelled" check-off wall chart, devised in a fit of exasperation with a child whose name shall not be mentioned, but for whom I'm sure Krampus has reserved a special spot in his cooking pot), and I read them this poem I wrote, just special for the occasion (E and Z like to come up with all the ways they will defeat Krampus when he comes for them--they don't doubt that he will--and M just derides my imperfect rhyming):

Beware the Krampus

On Saint Nicholas Eve, December the fifth,
Good children believe, they will get their wish,
If they place their shoes before the hearth,
Mind P’s ‘n Q’s and are pure in heart.
The good saint will ride, with gifts in his sack,
And place toys in the clogs of each Jill and Jack.

But ahead of St. Nick, travels a dark figure,
Tall as a man, plus another foot bigger,
Horns angle out from the top of his head,
His long red tongue fills hearts full of dread,
One leg ends in a hoof that is cloven,
And from matted black fur his cloak it is woven.

Panting and grunting he ranges into the night,
Swinging birch switches with all of his might,
To whip the backsides of boys who don’t mind,
And flail the girls who are rude and unkind,
For children who act with a pout or a snear,
Have Krampus to face at this time of year.

A basket of iron he heaves on his back,
Not filled with treasures like St. Nick’las’s sack.
Into this bin he flings bad girls and boys,
But the snarls of Krampus can’t be heard ‘bove the noise
Of children begging forgiveness for crimes,
And asking a chance to try one more time.

Their weeping and wailing falls on deaf ears.
The Krampus’s heart is like stone to their tears.
His basket filled, he trudges back to his lair,
His tired back stooped, and snow mats his hair,
He flings down basket, stokes coals till they’re hot,
Scoops handfuls of kids in his old cooking pot.

He adds water, garlic, salt, thyme and sage,
Then rests his bones ‘gainst the wall of his cave.
Soup bubbles and simmers, crying grows quiet.
Krampus dips a spoon to taste and to try it.
He fills his bowl full, settles down to dinner,
And devours the flesh of each little sinner.

Krampus cleans his bowl with a last little slurp,
Then settles to rest with a yawn and a burp,
The soup pot holds the remains of his feast,
And another year’s work is done for the beast.
He’ll sleep through winter, spring, summer and fall,
And emerge next December when his duty calls.

Now children, if you’re selfish and nasty,
The Krampus will find your flesh very tasty.
But if you are good and kind all the year,
From the Krampus you will have nothing to fear.
Next year you must do your best to behave,
Or else find yourselves supper in Krampus’s cave.

By the way, my kids all woke up in their own beds this morning and found St. Nicholas had left them each a clementine and a fancy chocolate. I guess Krampus had bigger, badder fish to fry this year.


  1. This reminds me of my father's stories of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas)and Belschnickle (aka Bad Cop)from his PA boyhood. Belschnickle would roam the neighborhood with a switch and bag of coal looking for naughty children. Hmmm. Maybe that makes Elf on the Shelf slightly less creepy. ;)

  2. Now that's a holiday tradition I can get behind! Love the poem, too!

  3. That Krampus is truly terrifying -- the coal in the stocking pales by comparison, while the Dutch sidekick (Black Pete) is more comic relief than threat. The different versions of this winter festival are fascinating!


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