Interview with a Krampus

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit this year. The decorations are up, the lights are lit, and rebellious radio stations are pumping out classic holiday tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Most of my shopping is done, there are way too many cookies in my house, and a candy cane hangs on the star that tops our tree.

Everything is feeling like Christmas, and it’s kind of perfect. Or at least it was, until a more sinister holiday tradition found its way onto my radar. Before we snuggle into our beds to dream of sugarplums, I think it’s time we talk about Krampus.

carolers
I would give these people figgy pudding if they showed up on my doorstep.

Maybe you’ve always been aware of St. Nick’s demon counterpart. I grew up happy, so I didn’t know about him until a few years ago. And I never met him until last night.

The origin of this dark character is a little unclear. The name Krampus probably comes from Krampen, the German word for claw, though similar traditions have come from all over Europe and may predate the sweeter celebrations of Christmas.

He is part goat, part demon, reminiscent of the traditional horned Satan of Christianity, and he comes on Krampusnacht on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes lugging chains and carrying a bundle of birch branches for swatting naughty children. The truly rotten kiddos, he stuffs in the sack on his back and carries them off, presumably to eat them.

Yikes. Merry Christmas!

krampuswarning
Krampus is useful if you need to keep the kiddos out of the room where the Christmas gifts are hidden.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this particular tradition. Honestly, Santa breaking and entering from the rooftop to snack on cookies isn’t high on my list, either, but at least he’s not devouring the children.

But because I, thankfully, didn’t grow up with Krampus in my life, I thought I should learn a bit about him as his popularity resurges throughout Europe and the United States. I went to the one place where I knew he’d be.

Saint Charles, Missouri, not too far from where I live, hosts an annual celebration called Christmas Traditions through several blocks of its charming brick road Main Street that runs alongside the Missouri River.

It’s a great family event, where you can catch a horse-drawn carriage ride, buy chestnuts roasted on an open fire, and listen to roaming packs of Victorian carolers begging for figgy pudding. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, characters of Christmas, including Susie Snowflake, Tiny Tim, and a whole host of traditional Father Christmases from around the world gather along the shop-lined lane and mingle with the crowd, handing out trading cards and holiday cheer.

On Wednesday evenings you can find them, too, but that’s also when the darker side of Christmas comes out to play. That’s when I went looking for Krampus. I had a hard time finding him at first so I asked a kindly old Kris Kringle, who was visibly distressed by the question. “We keep the naughty characters on the north end of the street,” he explained. “I should warn you, they’re a tough bunch, a little rough around the edges.”

krampus2
One Christmas tradition I think I could do without.

I thanked him and headed north where I discovered an abominable snowman, the Ice Queen, and Jolakotturinn, an Icelandic mouse demon that also eats people and will now haunt my sugarplum dreams.

At last I spotted the man/goat/demon himself. He was busy wishing people a happy President’s Day, Labor Day, or Columbus Day—anything but Christmas, a holiday he didn’t care to acknowledge. He handed out cards only when children said the magic phrase: “Give me a card, now!” I didn’t actually see him stuff any of them into a bag, but I could tell he was thinking about it. I’d have asked him. I even planned to. But he was a little rough around the edges.

Is Krampus a part of your holiday traditions?

 

Nothing Says Christmas like an Excess of Pickles

In April of 1864, during the American Civil War, Private John C. Lower of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, was captured and taken to a Confederate prison camp. There, after many months of captivity, he found himself on Christmas Eve, hungry, weak, and knocking on death’s door. He begged for help, appealing to the mercy of a guard who took pity on him and gave him a pickle.

christmas-pickle
If I owed my life to a pickle, I would definitely hang one on my Christmas tree.

It was this pickle that Private Lower later credited with the saving of his life, and when he finally returned home, he began a curious holiday tradition with his family. Whether Lower survived because the kindness of the prison camp guard infused him with hope for humanity, or because the slug of seven whole much needed calories provided him the energy to live on, no one can say for sure.

Pickles have long been considered to provide good health and vitality, and have been relied upon by military leaders dating back as far as Julius Caesar, to give their soldiers a much needed kick. Still, it seems likely that Lower’s story is entirely made up to explain the long-standing tradition of the Christmas pickle.

Never heard of it?

Neither had I, but apparently it’s been an American tradition since at least 1890 (or 1865, in the Lower household). Before that it was a “time honored German tradition.” The trouble with that theory, of course, is that most Germans haven’t heard of it either.

The idea is that parents hide a pickle ornament somewhere on the tree on Christmas Eve, and in the morning, the first child to spot it wins a small prize or receives a special blessing for the year to come, or earns the right to open the first present.

Okay, so it’s a little bit charming. And for the purposes of this blog post, I went on a pickle-finding adventure of my own. I searched several stores, asking employees if they had traditional Christmas pickle ornaments. Most of them looked at me with mystified expressions full of barely masked pity. Only one knew what I was talking about, though her store did not carry them. A surprised employee in the store where I finally had success, said, “Well, I think we had some cucumbers. Or maybe they were pickles?”

larry-and-bob
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I already had a cucumber on my tree.

They were. And I bought one. Because even if it isn’t an age-old German Christmas tradition, we Americans sure do love our pickles. More than half of the cucumbers we grow eventually become pickles. That’s twenty-six billion of them per year. And each of us allegedly eats an average of nine pounds of them per year, which means someone out there is eating an awful lot of pickles to balance out my somewhat less than nine pound contribution.

chicken-sandwich
I wonder how many Chick-fil-A sandwiches I’d have to eat to meet my pickle quota.

But there’s still the question of how they ended up on our Christmas trees. There are a couple theories other than the one involving Private Lower, including one that suggests the source is a miracle of St. Nicholas in which he resurrected two murdered boys who’d been sealed into a pickle barrel by an innkeeper (securing his place on the naughty list). There are lots of variations of that story, though, and most don’t involve pickles at all. Also, it’s pretty awful and not very Christmas-y.

The theory that I find most believable, is that in 1890, F.W. Woolworth began importing Christmas ornaments from a German glass factory, many of them in the shapes of fruits. Some of them were pickles (and, yes, cucumbers, and therefore pickles, are fruits…ask a botanist). While the pomegranates and pears sold fairly well, for some reason, the pickles didn’t strike most people as particularly Christmas-y. And so a German custom was born, right there in an American five-and-dime.

It turns out this long standing Christmas tradition that few of us have actually heard of, may really stem from a marketing campaign and an excess of glass pickles, the most non-Christmas-y fruit imaginable. But, it’s kind of fun and weird. So, why not?

Please don’t look at me like that.

On Christmas morning 1902, young brothers Quentin and Archie Roosevelt revealed a holiday surprise to their parents. As the first family entered the White House room where they were to open their gifts, the boys threw open a set of closet doors to reveal a small decorated Christmas tree.

English: A Christmas Tree at Home
Surprise! There were too many trees in the yard anyway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tree had been cut from the White House grounds and with a little assistance from staff had been wired for electric lights. The trouble was that President Theodore Roosevelt had specifically banned White House Christmas trees the previous year.

A dedicated outdoorsman and environmentalist, Roosevelt had listened to the increasing public concern over unnecessary forest destruction and come to the decision that his family would not participate in the holiday tradition.

Now, please believe me when I say that I am not a Christmas tree hater. I recognize that for many of the folks out there who celebrate Christmas, the season just simply would not be the same without a freshly cut tree. But I don’t have a real tree in my home.

Primarily this is because I have a family member who is terribly allergic to evergreen, but I also appreciate that artificial trees don’t need to be watered, rarely burst into flame, and possess bendy branches that are quite convenient for whimsical ornament placement. Best of all, when Christmas is over, I don’t have to worry about how to dispose of my tree.

christmas tree recycling dropoff 4
Oh. Right there? OK. (Photo credit: sdminor81)

At least I thought that was an advantage, until I moved to Oregon, which produces more live Christmas trees than any other state in the United States. Sometime during the week following our first Oregonian Christmas, a young lady knocked on our door and explained that her glee club, chess team, cheerleading squad, or something was raising funds by recycling Christmas trees for people. When I told her that we had an artificial tree, the perky smile slid from her face.

She recovered quickly, the ends of her mouth turning up, a look of disbelief in her shining eyes as she shifted to try to see around me into my home. The “tree” was easy to spot in the front room.

“Oh, okay. Thanks anyway.” She turned to walk back down the driveway, her shoulders sagging, as if I had just explained how I’d accidentally run over her puppy.

Puppy-sam
Let me be perfectly clear about this. I did NOT run over anyone’s puppy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But now we’re back in the Midwest where real trees cost nearly as much as the artificial ones and no one seems to take it as a personal affront that we prefer unpacking our tree from a box in the basement to strapping it to the roof of our car.

Still, my time in the Pacific Northwest has given me a new perspective on the advantages of real Christmas trees:

1.      Real evergreen trees make your house smell lovely and if anyone is allergic to them, his or her airway will soon clog enough to not smell them anyway so everyone wins.

2.      Real trees introduce a new crop of spiders into your home that soon take up residence and can become beloved pets for your children.

3.      Real trees spread their needles over the floor to be tracked all over the place, giving your entire home a fresh green Christmas-y feel.

4.      Real trees produce plenty of sap to coat your family’s treasured ornaments and protect them from potential breakage.

5.  When a young lady shows up on your doorstep offering to recycle your Christmas tree as a fundraiser for the annual honors orchestra trip to Boise, you don’t have to inform her that you have just run over her puppy.

And it turns out the Roosevelt family discovered a new perspective on their live Christmas tree, too. According to the story, the president was not particularly angry with his young sons, but decided that this was a teachable moment. He invited his friend and adviser Gifford Pinchot who would later serve as Chief of the United States Forest Service to explain to the boys the problems of deforestation and the use of trees for decorative purposes. Instead, Pinchot told them that sometimes the selective harvesting of older trees could be beneficial to a forest.

Christmas Tree Lot (#2548)
I’d like the one with the fewest bald spots and the most spiders, please.(Photo credit: regan76)

There’s no record of trees being reincorporated into the Roosevelt Christmas celebrations in the White House, but many reforestation laws and environmental acts came out of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, most of the Christmas trees in the United States are farm raised with highly sustainable farming practices.

So go ahead all you holiday traditionalists out there. Gather with your family around your real Christmas tree and sing Dr. Seuss’s “Welcome Christmas” or whatever it is you do to celebrate. I will be with my family, passing out the gifts left under our perfectly shaped, green plastic Christmas “tree” complete with occasional clusters of small fake pine cones. In a few days, I will pull off the branches and stuff them back into the box in the basement. And I promise I will try not to run over your puppy.

Merry Christmas!