Santa’s Harsh Helper Krampus

Krampus is a frightening devil-like figure with horns who shows up each winter. He is always found in association with festivities of St. Nicholas, as part of the folk-imagination and popular Christmas customs of Austria, southern Germany, and some Eastern European countries. Krampus is a shadow alter-ego of St. Nick, an enforcer type whose threats cause fear and can keep people in line. Krampus is like a trait of Nicholas—he keeps strict track of who’s naughty and nice, and punishes the deserving. Just as St. Nick can bring gifts for those who have been good, Krampus can also bring humiliation and pain that is sure to cramp the transgressors’ style.

Santa is all sweetness and light, kindness and generosity, the positive nice old white haired grandfatherly man in a vivid life-red suit. He’s jolly and beneficent, generous to good children. He’s got a swarm of elves to help him accomplish his tasks.
But Santa’s buddy Krampus is a bad trip, dressed in mussed fur, with scary horns, and his long, lolling red tongue makes his face repulsive. Krampus is nasty and grotesque, and he settles old scores. Each Christmastime he trips up those who expect good fortune when they have been acting in a shameful manner, being mean toward others, behaving cruelly or selfishly. He humbles arrogant bullies, bringing justice to reprobates who otherwise get away scot free with horrible offenses.

Grumpy old Krampus is sometimes portrayed in chains to show he is on a leash under Saint Nick’s’s control and would not be able to harm people except for Saint Nick’s command. Just the sight of Krampus can scare the bejesus out of kids, keeping them on their toes. Saint Nick uses the power of Krampus for his purposes of morality – Krampus is Santa’s muscle, his enforcer. He gives teeth to Santa’s demand for good behavior. He has the punitive force to persuade human beings, who are a weak and tempted lot, to be good, better and the best they can be. Thus, Krampus makes Kris Kringle more than a kindly grandpa figure. “You do wrong and I’ll break your leg,” is a serious threat. Krampus is the bummer, a nightmare for those who presume they are beyond the rules, who have forgotten their own conscience. In some places there are very frightening Krampus visits, and the practice of having group runs, stampedes incited by someone dressed up as a frightening horned Krampus striking passersby and onlookers, including children, with long whiplike sticks, completely terrorizing them. Krampus rudely awakens semiconscious people, causing them to duck, dodge, and run away to avoid the pain he inflicts.
The horrific “Krampus run” is like a stampede of cattle. The crowd of kids may panic, chased over terrifying terrain where it is hard to keep balance. The old and young runners are in danger of falling, being trampled in a stampede, and scared to death almost. It is a frightening time that creates conditions for heart attacks. No matter how fast and far the terrified people in the crowd run, they cannot get away. They run on the verge of stumbling, falling and breaking a limb. The horrified people look back, and there is Krampus, still pursuing them, indefatigable, with his long red lolling tongue and scary staring eyes shining red with rage, waving his switch and rattling his chain, relentlessly running after the herd of kids, laughing as they cry.

“When you are running from Santa’s angry helper you know the fear of God in your heart. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?” Krampus asks. On the one hand, to have the taint of sin scared out of you as you run screaming, is a terrible thing because it is so frightening. But on the other hand, well, you really know you’re alive at such times—there’s no question about that, your heart beats fast and you are thrilled and you thank heaven for your good fortune, vowing to avoid doing bad deeds in the future. That is the normal response. But in life things don’t always go that smoothly. Imagine that in one small Austrian town a group of kids get tired of old man Krampus herding them around, running them into a panic on his big day, December 5, each year. He has always seemed so vicious in calling them “bad girls and rotten boys” and he’s gotten so much pleasure from seeing them screaming and running in tears, one year they said “enough is enough.”
“He is so much bigger than us, we can’t help but feel helpless! Don’t you resent his meanness, and silently curse him? You know that old man who plays Krampus here every year is not faultless himself. He was a mean-hearted skinflint. Don’t you resent the old man’s hypocrisy? So, let’s teach him a harsh lesson,” the tallest kid said.

“How shall we get him?” the shortest kid asked, seething with resentment at remembering the rough treatment Krampus dealt him the year before.

“While we’re running from him, once the momentum builds up, let’s lead him into a trap, and trip him up,” the tallest one said. All agreed that would be a good plan.

And so, it was resolved in their minds. They would turn against the Krampus, and turn against the system that shunted them like dumb cattle down a narrow lane on a hurried chase. “We’re just kids, why should we be treated like dumb animals?”

Next Christmastime, the kids were ready. Using a tripwire stretched on the ground across the path, they caused the old man dressed as Krampus to fall when he reached that spot, while he was viciously chasing and harassing them.

Their plan worked. Old Krampus stumbled headlong, fell and skinned his knees and hands, and cracked his skull on a curbstone. Naturally, seeing him lying there, they felt mercy for him, but it was too late.

Krampus lay there dying, and the tallest and shortest of the kids taunted him a while, he spoke his last words to the tallest one: “Here, Stretch, take this switch, and this chain, too. You can have these horns and this furry mask. You are the new Krampus now. Take them. I got them the same way you are getting them—I taunted the old Krampus, made him fall and die. Now it will be your turn. You must keep running the children down this narrow lane on Christmas! Run them ragged and keep them frightened out of their minds, until you find the next Krampus to pass the job on to, at the time of your death. Congratulations. It is your job now, you will find no escape from it.” Then the old man died.

The shortest kid took the switch and chain, horns and furry mask. “Just for fun, I’ll keep these for you,” he told the tall kid. “Who knows, we may have fun with them.”

The tall kid felt sick to his stomach, and after that he kept going back to the doctor because he felt like he had a fever, maybe caused by an infection. But the doctor who examined him and gave him blood tests could find nothing wrong with his health.
Although mean old Krampus was dead, the tallest youth continued to rail against his memory, cursing him, even though his mother always told him, “Forgive and forget.”
Something deep inside him was still irked by the thought of that vindictive old man. “I still hate him! He got what he deserved! Why did he love to punish kids so much? The memory of that horned rat sticks in my craw!”

The shortest kid sometimes fooled around with the switch and the horns. He put the costume on and looked in the mirror and laughed while wagging his tongue and rattling the chain. And he showed the tallest kid how easy it was to scare people with the Krampus costume. Finally the tallest kid gave in and tried it out, too.

It was a big shock. The tallest kid found that by dressing up as horrible old Krampus and tormenting the children at Christmastime festivities, he felt cool, healthy and happy. At those special times he was relieved of all his ills and woes. He felt like a new man, like king, and wished every day was December 5.

Oddly enough, the shortest kid became heavier and heavier and his hair turned white as the years went on. In time he volunteered to take on the role of kind old Saint Nicholas in the annual yuletide celebrations. He liked to give gifts to kids. Being a sought-after accountant in town, he enjoyed keeping exact records, long lists of who was good and who was bad.

Though some say, “Krampus is the worst thing in Austria, a horrible figure for any country to feature in its customs. A scourge, terrifying tender children. Why is he allowed to return each year? He’s a menace! We should outlaw him.” Nevertheless, regardless of public opinion, Krampus is very popular. He re-appears as if by clockwork every December 5, and there is a flurry of excitement every year when he appears. Some hurry toward him and some hurry away.

People anticipate the Christmas season with enthusiasm. When Santa and his shadow reappear, kids are thrilled to see them, eager to receive gifts, excited to try to escape from Krampus’s clutches. And old Krampus enjoys this annual moment of greatness too. He doesn’t want to die, and has no intention of calling the whole thing off. He will not go peacefully. He is there to stay, every year he shows up again on December 5, plays his role, terrorizing people, every generation, every century. He is Austria’s scary shadow of Santa Claus, the ogre everyone runs from and loves to hate. And Krampus is ever on the lookout for the next one to take over the role.


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