You’d Better Watch Out



You’d Better Watch Out

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why…

Nope, sorry, it isn’t Santa Claus comin’ to town…it’s the Krampus.

The what? I heard you ask.

The Krampus, jolly old St. Nicholas’ original traveling companion. See, in olden days, in the gloom of the Black Forest in Germany where the legends began, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklass as he was known back then, was a kind, beneficent figure, bestowing gifts upon all good little children everywhere—you know the sort, the ones who say their prayers at night, who eat their vegetables, the ones who listen to Mama and Papa, who do as they are told. But it seems jolly old St. Nick had issues with punishing those kids that made his naughty list. So he hired a terrifying black-furred, black-horned, black-hoofed creature, with bulging yellow eyes and one really long, lolling pink tongue to do his dirty work.

Yup, that’s the Krampus—and he gets his name from the German for his set of spiky, feral claws.

It was the Krampus’ job to chastise the disobedient, the insubordinate, the disrespectful, and the rebellious into submission. This was done with the sharp switches he carried. And if after being violently thrashed the miscreant was still unrepentant, the Krampus lugged a great big wicker basket and rusty chains around with him and pop! into that basket would go the shackled, wailing brat and he or she would then be the recipient of a one-way trip to the infernal regions.

In short, he was the bad cop to Santa’s good.

Sometimes the Krampus was lenient; if a child had been just a wee bit too mischievous the past year, a lump of coal would be left as a warning of what they would be stoking in the hellfires below if that bad behavior didn’t improve—and fast!

As the stream of German, Austrian, and Northern European refugees disembarked on America’s shores, they brought with them their customs, those involving the keeping of Christmas being the most prevailing. But the fainthearted, lily-livered folk in the New World couldn’t stomach the darker traditions of the Old, and so the Krampus’ immigration papers were refused at Ellis Island and he was deported back home.

Even St. Nick himself got watered down from imposing holy figure in miter and robes to a small, rotund elf in a red flannel suit. After all, that merry old sprite with the white beard and cherry cheeks, whose belly shook like a bowlful of jelly with each giggle was so much easier to take—and so much more marketable. Who’d want an inky devil hawking Coca-Cola to the masses? Or climbing down their chimney flue in the middle of the night. And let’s face it, Herr Krampus would be a real tough fit into a season’s recitation of “The Night Before Christmas”…more Edgar Allan Poe than ho, ho, ho…

…and he probably wouldn’t have gotten on too well with those flying reindeer anyhow.

Gone are the days of being borne off to Hell in a hand-basket; the worst punishment Santa seems to be able to manage now is to dole out underwear and socks.

But as history teaches us, old habits die hard, and the Krampus has clung on tenaciously with his claws, refusing to give in to obscurity. He became a prominent figure during the Christmas postcard craze that hit Europe from the late-1800s to the beginning of World War I; his evilly grinning visage bearing “Grüß vom Krampus,”—“Greetings from Krampus”—arriving in the post to households everywhere. And he even has his own eve of festivity, Krampusnacht, the sixth of December, where young male townsfolk are encourage to dress up as the season’s anti-hero, their Krampus costumes made from sheepskin, rams’ horns, and a switch or two that they use to swat children and unsuspecting young ladies.

Just goes to show, you can’t keep a horny old goat down for long.

So, remember, the Krampus is still there, lurking in every shadow where the flickering firelight and guttering candle flame can’t reach…and maybe those sleigh bells are in fact the jingling of rusted chains…and maybe Rudolph didn’t make those hoof-prints in the snow…and maybe those twinkling bulbs on the tree might just be a pair of bright yellow eyes blinking…

…and that often-sung holiday tune suddenly takes on a whole new meaning…

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Scot D. Ryersson is astonished to have recently celebrated his half-century natal day, and to find that somewhere along the way he became an award-winning artist and best-selling author. He has lived in Sydney, Toronto, London, and New York; is addicted to eating dark chocolate while reading Agatha Christie and Angela Carter; and has an overt fondness for the French decadents, Edward Gorey limericks, and werewolves, not necessarily in that order and depending on the time of day. He currently resides with his partner of twenty-six years in the wilds of northern New Jersey in an apartment the décor of which would make the Addams family jealous.

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

One commenter will win a handmade Krampus ornament made from a print of an
antique Krampus postcard and antique tarnished tinsel.

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

6. Hunting the Wren is a practice once done on which festive day?

23 Responses

  1. Learning some interesting facts on this advent calendar, loving it!

  2. Fascinating stuff. I’ve just read somewhere about a big black dog-like creature that eats children who don’t get presents. Nice!! Wonderful post. Thank you. 😀

    • Love to know who that dog is, Jessie. Research, must research!!Perhaps he’ll be my Advent calendar posting next year!

  3. That reminds me of a poem my girls used to love, about the long legged scissor man. Very interesting!

  4. The dog reminds me of Allen Moore’s shagfoal– shudder. And Christmas always did have a shadow, to show off the light.

    • British author William Sansom wrote in his marvelous book, “The Book of Christmas” that the true colour of Christmas was not red, green or gold, but black to as you stated Stephanie “to show off the light.”

  5. We sometimes forget, what with all the commercialism of Christmas, that the holiday has two sides, the good and the bad. Thanks very much for reminding us.

    • Yup, Christmas is another part of life, Mick; you have to take the good with the bad, and thus appreciate the good all the more!

  6. Gives new meaning to checking his list. 😦

  7. Shoot—I remember reading a pretty good story about the Krampus (well, I’m assuming it was good; I don’t quite recall the details of the plot). But I can’t remember where I read it; I’ll have to dig around through my books here…

  8. What a strange name – Krampus. I’ve never heard of any of this. Thanks so much! it was fascinating.

  9. One year on Supernatural, for a Christmas episode, they referenced the Krampus, but he didn’t turn out to be the Monster of the Week after all. It was a couple of pagan deities who were annoyed at their holiday being usurped. They were masquerading as sweet-as-pie Midwestern retirees, and even as they were doing dreadful things to Our Heroes, the lady was chastising Dean for cussing!

    • Never saw that, Julian, but artist/writer Brom has a new novel out called “Krampus: The Yule Lord.”

  10. I can’t believe I’d never heard of this guy! Fascinating post. I must tell my daughter about the Krampus; she’s being a little madam lately! 😉

    But seriously, WHAT is that tongue all about? ;P

  11. Fabtastic post, I always wondered why naughty children would be given coal when it’s such a useful thing for keeping warm etc. – I’d never thought of it being a reminder of the fires of hell!

  12. Fantastic facts there.

  13. So that’s why naughty kids got coal. I’d never heard of the Krampus – thanks for the enlightenment – is he perhaps related to Black Piet in the Netherlands?

  14. Black Piet is another character altogether, Mara. He is more of Saint Nicholas’ Moorish servant, or his page. He is more benign than the Krampus!

  15. Very interesting post about the Krampus, which was new to me.

  16. What an interesting story! Thank you!

  17. Loved this post. I was unfamiliar with the Krampus, he would never do at the Macy’s Christmas parade. but I think he would make a memorable balloon, don’t you?

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