Friday, 21 December 2007

Be good or the Krampus will get you!

I've been learning German for three years now and every year around this time we invariably end up talking about the tradition of St Nikolaus, supposedly the Bishop of Myra (circa 300 and something) who used to give to the poor and needy every 6th December. The son of rich parents, he had pockets sewn into his clothes so that he could fill them with mandarins from the garden and take them to give out to the poor outside the city gates (rich people didn't need pockets I guess because they had servants to carry everything for them). It would be nice to think it is goodwill and kind-heartedness that is behind the spirit of Christmas but somehow this character has morphed over time into the overfeed jolly Santa fella who now graces Coke billboards and hangs out in Shopping Malls provoking people into some sort of duty bound money spending frenzy. Consumerism apparently is the real meaning of Christmas. This fat guy is supposed to keep a list of which children have been naughty and which ones have been nice during the year too as a means of getting them to behave but he must be lazy since they still seem to get their PlayStations either way.

Now, if you are a kid in Europe, particularly in some places like Bavaria and Austria you don't get it so easy. In some of these places (particularly rural) St Nick is accompanied by a terrifying looking dude with devilish goat horns covered in black fur who drags around rusty chains and clangs cow bells called a Krampus. He trundles around after St Nick on the 5th December visiting children's homes. If the children have been good they get gifts from St Nikolaus but if they've been bad the traditional story is that the Krampus will punish them by putting them in his sack and running off with them or chase them with a switch! I bet there are some good children living in Krampus territory!

This is something that has come from pre-Christian pagan times and is closely related to another tradition of the hideous Perchta who looks almost identical and runs around during Winter Solstice driving out any evil spirits associated with the winter months to ensure the locals don't freeze or starve to death before Summer! Not something many of us have to worry about in the 21st century since all our crops are grown for us inside a Supermarket by invisible farmers and electricity homogenizes the seasons.

These days there are Krampus events where there are competitions for the best carved Krampus mask and young men dress up in the black sheep skins roaming the streets in packs of 10 scaring children and adults alike. I'm sure they get less and less frightening though as they go from house to house getting more and more drunk and uncoordinated! A Krampus staggering around giggling like a girl and singing drinking songs I am sure looks pretty ridiculous.

Anyway, I reckon these are pretty funny. And I think they would have been a more appropriate icon than friendly Santa to place on Coca Cola's advertising. After all, Coke is dark and hideous and can be used to clean your car engine so it's no more friendly than a Krampus!

If you want to see some in action here is a good movie.

Merry Scary Christmas everyone!