You need only scratch the surface of modern Europe to see the pulsing of its medieval veins. This can be a little unnerving, but it’s also deeply gratifying in a way that’s hard to pin down.
Take Christmas traditions as an example. In America, we embrace a jovial, generous Santa Claus (who, for all of his good character points, does seem to team up with Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the rest of the commercial establishment a little too often for comfort). He surrounds himself with other agreeable characters– Rudolph and Frosty–and they have a jolly time. Sure, adversity must be overcome, but their stories never really cross to the dark side.
Would you like a little saccharin with that sweet?
Not so in Germany and Austria. Oh, they’ll serve you sweets at each turn this time of year, but you’re never quite sure what they are fattening you up for. You might cheer your good fortune at stumbling upon a kind old lady in a gingerbread house! You might anticipate a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th (Nikolaustag) with unbridled joy! But wait. What if the good fortune is not what it appears?
Because sometimes it’s not.
But the next thing your eyes fall upon is this:
Holy camole! What’s that all about? Well, simply put, you are in the Old World now, the land of the Brothers Grimm, where every light casts a shadow.
Yes, there’s always a dark underbelly in Germany. For each saint, there’s a devil; for each sweet, there’s a reckoning; for each life, there’s a death. Each candle-strewn Christmas pyramid holds back the dark of a frozen winter, and each yin has its yang.
Many unlucky children have found themselves, not on Santa’s lap, but staring down a devil named Krampus. (You just met his likeness in foil-covered chocolate, above.) A demon who, at best, humiliated children with twigs instead of candy at Christmas. At worse, beat them heartily with those switches. And at worst, dragged them down to Hell. (Well, they had been naughty, you know.)
This is stern stuff. A little shocking to those of us raised on Miracle on 34th Street or T’was the Night Before Christmas. Well, my friends . . .welcome to Middle Europe, where St. Nick is often accompanied by a sinister sidekick: Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Schwarz Peter. Krampus is horned and devilish, Knecht Ruprecht and Schwarz Peter are more recognizably human, but sooty, uninviting, and coal and switch-laden. (Whether this surly sidekick is malevolent or simply mischievous is entirely dependent upon whose hands he is in. . . or possibly on how naughty the child has been.)
Our first run in with Krampus was in that sweets store in Salzburg, but last weekend we ran into him again–this time at the Christkindlmarkt at Bernkastel-Kues. His boat was parked among the market stalls.
I’m not sure what the boat motif is all about. We were on the Mosel River…but my sister has (rightly) suggested that this looks more like something from the River Styx, where the ferryman will guide you to the afterlife…right after St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht decide your fate!! Oh, and Merry Christmas!
We laughed about this, but for those of us who remember Santa as all love and no menace, this is jarring. Our “Christmas judgment” was always at the hands of this guy:
He was rumpled and happy, and he smelled of candy canes. If we got tongue tied, it was only because we were overcome by his largess. It was never because we feared for our very souls.
Honestly, if I had found myself, at age six, sitting between St. Nicholas in his starchy Pope’s hat and some vaguely human entity who looked like this
swarthy vagrant. . . well. . .
Hmmmm. . . I don’t know how that would have worked out. I certainly wouldn’t have produced a long list of “things I’d like for Christmas, because I want them, or I need them, or I saw them in the Sears Wish Book, or the Saturday morning commercial looked awesome, or Sarah’s best friend Suzy has one and I want one too!”
And so, it occurs to me that all German and Austrian children must be really, really, very, very good at Christmas time. And very undemanding.
And very scared.
Good thing they get to stave off the dark and deadly cold of the season by going home and lighting candles on those popular German Christmas pyramids and candle arches, and by hanging glowing Moravian stars all over the house. You certainly need all the light you can get when Krampus is skulking around outside in the dark streets.
It’s the German way–an austere world view, gilded around the edges with gingerbread and chocolates. The devil will always lurk in the shadow of the saint; the dark and cold will always stand sentry at the edge of the firelight. . .but if you are well behaved and diligent, you may just hold the dark at bay for a while.
So, I’ll leave you with a holiday toast: eat, drink, and be merry. . .for tomorrow, you may meet Krampus.
*Check out the video A Krampus Carol by Anthony Bourdain on Youtube, if you want a slightly disturbing holiday laugh. And, yes, the girl does appear to get carried “to Hell in a handbasket.” Nothing says Merry Christmas like that!
*One, final, note: this dynamic duo of St. Nick and Krampus seems to own the holiday of Nikolaustag (Nikolaus Day and Eve, December 5th and 6th). After that, Weihnachtsman, Kris Kringle, Santa, the Christ child (Christkind), or some other regional “santa” takes center stage for Christmas. I can’t say that I understand these myriad traditions yet…but maybe I can shed more light on this by next Christmas.