The holiday season is in full swing, but this week some parts of the world are about to celebrate one you might not be as familiar with: The Feast of Saint Nicholas. Last year we covered that I’m a Christmas geek, but while I mentioned Krampus he’s not really associated with Christmas… technically. I know Krampus is becoming popular in recent years, but if you’re a fan the time to celebrate is now, not Christmas Eve. Since we know geeks are a stickler for accuracy, here’s a little background info to get you started. And where we start is Saint Nicholas Day.
It’s celebrated in some form or another in most of Europe, to varying degrees, but it’s probably most popular in the Netherlands. There it’s the main gift-giving holiday instead of Christmas, with Saint Nick – Sinterklaas – giving out the gifts instead of Santa. In some other countries, it’s celebrated to a lesser degree, but there’s a relatively common thread in putting out a shoe or stocking, and getting some sort of sweet in it the next morning – or possibly a switch, if you’ve been naughty. It’s like the coal in our stocking, only with less room for interpretation.
With the sweet comes the scary
What I find fascinating about the various versions of Saint Nicholas Day is that, yes, you can obviously trace many of the modern American Christmas traditions, but one key factor didn’t make the Atlantic crossing – the presence of a “bad guy” as a counterpart to the gift-giver, to encourage good behavior. I mean, sure, we sing “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” but what does that even mean? In some cultures, it might mean, “Or you’ll be beaten by an evil, cannibalistic butcher,” “Or you’ll be kidnapped and taken away in a sack,” or even “Or you’ll be carried away by a demon to be munched on in Hell.” Again, a little more to the point.
Now, in general, I’m a pretty huge softy, and I don’t know that we’re really suffering for lack of a Christmas Vampire. But at this time of year, I always think back to when I was first introduced to these traditions – when I first saw Krampus.
I wasn’t expecting to encounter any holiday traditions – it was the middle of November in Berlin, too early for the Christmas Markets to be open. But I happened to be there for the grand opening of a Winterfest sort of fairground, and several Krampuses were in attendance for the celebration. These guys were probably the most cuddly ones I’ve ever seen – they looked more like creatures from Where the Wild Things Are or extras from that Dragnet movie than demons from Hell. Still, they were extra-tall, imposing, with giant garish masks and lolling tongues, dragging chains and bells. Not your typical character meet-and-greet.
The Winterfest was full of children, and the children were hilarious to watch – they’d sneak up behind a Krampus and poke him before running away. They’d dare each other to ring one of the clanging bells. There was a lot of giggling and peeking around corners. The adults were getting their pictures taken with Krampus, and even they were laughing nervously. It just seemed like so much fun. Much better than crying at Santa Claus, who’s supposed to be the good guy but is kind of suspect at the best of times.
Now, I suppose kids in the US aren’t actually missing out on the tradition; we have Halloween, which is basically an entire night dedicated to spooking yourself within safe parameters. Still, I’m particularly fond of Krampus – last year I even bought a stocking with one on it, that just might get hung this week.
Krampus and You
So maybe you’re intrigued and want to know more about this dark sidekick, or there are a few children you’d like to terrorize. Well, you can always educate yourself even more at krampus.com, featuring images from vintage greeting cards. There are also Krampus events happening around the US, so it can’t hurt to do a search in your area. Philadelphia is a big one. Rochester, New York is doing an adults-only Breakfast With Krampus, while collecting toys for disadvantaged children at the same time. Los Angeles is running an entire festival over the course of a few weeks. And, of course, you can always come up with a way to celebrate yourself, whether it’s arts and crafts-ing a shoe to be filled with candy (not too scary, the softy implores you) or basically having a Halloween Party Part II.
Just do me a favor, will you? Don’t bring up Christmas Eve or say that Krampus is Santa’s evil twin. The history buff in me can’t handle it.
One last thing: while I tend to like the cuddlier depictions of Krampus, no doubt thanks to my first experience, this collection of decidedly darker photos is absolutely amazing.
Now what about you? What do you think about a dark side to the gift-giving season? Would it actually be something you’d want to expose children to, or should the spooky stick with Halloween? Share your thoughts below!