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.

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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!

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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.”

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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?

 

Monks Make Wily Guards and Santa Claus is Dead

As we enter into the busy Christmas season with the official start of Advent this past Sunday, I suppose it’s fitting to pause for a moment to observe the day when Santa Claus died. Yesterday (December 6) was recognized as the 1,674th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most widely honored saints.

Celebrated for his gift-giving and kindness, particularly to the children of the poor, and remembered fondly for slapping a heretic across the face during the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas is still the hippest 4th century bishop around.

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By Aloxe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3138918

And no one loves St. Nicholas as much as the people of Bira, Italy, where his remains have been at rest within the Basilica di San Nicola for more than 900 years. But the saint isn’t from Italy originally, and no, he’s also not from the North Pole. He also most likely didn’t make his home with an army of toy-making elves and a herd of magical reindeer. Sometimes, people (like history bloggers) make things up. Sorry.

St. Nicholas actually spent much of his life serving as Bishop of Myra, a Greek town on the Mediterranean Coast, in what is modern-day Antalya, Turkey. Most people assumed that’s where the saint was buried, and he remained there until 1087 when some rowdy Italian elves (or sailors) from Bira spirited away his jolly bones, landing themselves, I would think, permanently on the naughty list.

There are different versions of the story, of course. Italian church historians tend to refer to the theft as the “translation” of the St. Nicholas relics from one place to the other. They favor stories that suggest cooperation of the monks guarding the tomb who stepped aside both in fear for the relics under the threat of Arab occupation, and because they read the signs suggesting Nicholas himself was ready to move. This isn’t quite how the tale is understood by Turkish archaeologists who would like the stolen relics back.

But archaeologists working in Antalya recently claimed they might have evidence that would change the story anyway. Beneath the ancient St. Nicholas Church in Southern Turkey, researchers detected a previously unknown crypt beneath a mosaic floor. Because historic floor removal is a delicate process, it could be a while before the crypt can be fully revealed, and any resting occupants examined.

For now it’s enough evidence for the Turkish archaeologists to publicly claim that the bones stolen away to Bira probably didn’t belong to St Nicholas anyway. They reference records from the time that suggest instead the wily guard monks tricked the thieves and sent the remains of another less well known priest to Italy.

The word from Bira is that they will assume they hold the true remains until world-wide experts reassure them, and this silly Turkish ploy to steal their pilgrimage tourism dollars can be brought to a close (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). I’m not sure what the response has been from the at least three other locations that claim to possess bones of the saint.

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See kids? He’s just fine. And jolly as ever. By Oldschool at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
And therein lies the rub with relics. They’re hard to verify. All we really know for certain is that St. Nicholas is definitely dead. That’s what a lot of traumatized children are learning this holiday season. A friend recently posted on Facebook the contents of an e-mail sent to her by her child’s fourth grade teacher expressing concern that student-written responses to an article about the discovery in Turkey revealed some holiday anxiety. I suspect this was not the only teacher who has encountered this tricky problem this school year.

The good news is that regardless of where he was buried, the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on in an undisclosed magical location at the North Pole surrounded by flying reindeer and wily elves, and no way is anyone going to discover his bones there.

Santa Might Be On To Something

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been busy this holiday season. Already several times I’ve party planned and cleaned and hosted and cleaned. I’ve shopped for gifts, a task that no matter how early I start, always seems to take until Christmas Eve. I’ve made Christmas candies and cookies, decorated and crafted and spread Christmas cheer in a lot of little ways. But in order to accomplish these tasks, I’ve had to let others slide.

The biggest of those other tasks is sending Christmas cards. I wasn’t feeling too bad about that, though, because I am fortunate not to have many overachieving friends. I’m happy to report that I didn’t receive a single card the day after Thanksgiving (seriously, such a betrayal might signal the end our friendship). Nor did I receive any cards for the first nearly two weeks of December, which goes a long way in making a busy gal feel truly special.

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I even received a Christmas card from my dog this week, though judging by a curious postmark (and his notable lack of thumbs), I suspect he had help.

But then this third week of Advent arrived, and with it came the postcards featuring the smiling faces of friends and family and busy children who are growing faster than I can quite grasp, handmade die-cut works of art filled with sweet holiday greetings, and letters recounting a year’s worth of adventures.

So that’s when the guilt started to set in. Because for all I have done so far this busy season, I haven’t designed a postcard or die-cut any artsy Christmas trees or written a year-end letter. I haven’t even purchased a big box of factory-made holiday greetings.

And I feel especially bad about it when I take a moment to realize that even Santa, easily the season’s busiest fictional character with tens of thousands of letters to send, already has this holiday task well in hand.

In my defense, Santa does have a lot of practice. He’s been sending Christmas letters to excited littles at least since the late 19th century, decades before postal policy technically allowed him to do so. Because letters addressed to Santa Claus used to wind up in the Dead Letter office.

Or at least officially they did. There were always  those kindhearted postmasters who couldn’t stand the thought of a letter to Santa going unanswered, or an innocent expression of real need going unmet.

One such kindhearted person was Connecticut postmaster Harris Eames, who in 1894 opened a letter addressed to “Sandy Clous” from a little girl in a family he knew. From the letter, Eames learned that the family had fallen on harder times than anyone had realized. The postmaster contacted local businesses and orchestrated a Sandy Clous miracle.

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Actually, I don’t think this guy really does much of anything himself. He doesn’t even deserve those cookies! Public Domain image, via http://www.costumers.com/

For years, similar heartwarming stories rolled in from post offices all over the country, until finally, in 1913, the Postal Department relented, accepting its position as the gatekeeper for Santa Claus.

The procedure for handling and answering letters from children to their Christmas hero has changed through the years amid growing privacy concerns, but many postal offices still partner with local charities to deliver Sandy Clous miracles through what is collectively known as “Operation Santa.” And the jolly old elf himself will take the time to write back to any child who wants to send him a letter.

Sort of.

Much like Santa’s brilliant gift-giving policy, his letters do require a little help from parents. The current USPS Santa letter instructions state that you must include the response letter in a self-addressed, stamped envelope included in a specially addressed outer envelope.

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If only I could get my family to buy and wrap their own presents.

Oh, and because Santa is super organized and on top of such important tasks, it has to be received in Anchorage, Alaska by December 1oth. That way the postal elves have time to process it and get it back to you by Christmas, postmarked from the North Pole, of course.

I do think the USPS and Santa are on to something. So, I’ll tell you what. If you are hoping to receive a Christmas card from me this year, all you need to do is design one, place it in a self-addressed stamped envelope and a larger envelope addressed to me. Then drop it in your mailbox and I will send it right back to you, postmarked from St. Louis to give it that truly authentic feel.

Now, if you wanted it by Christmas, you’d have had to get it to me by December 10th, since I’ll surely drive around with it in my purse for a few days before remembering to drop it in the mailbox. But since we both know you can’t reasonably expect a Christmas card from me until January, I think there’s still time.

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Claus: A Fat, Jolly Kleptomaniac with a Raging Coke Addiction

In 1931, Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom was approached by the Coca-Cola Company to reinvent the image of Santa Claus. The artist had a lot to work with. The legend which had begun with the generosity of a 4th-century bishop was Americanized by Washington Irving in 1809.

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Coke and Santa Claus, forever linked by the efforts of Haddon Sundblom. That’s effective advertising.

In 1823, thanks to the poetry of Clement Moore (maybe), he became a jolly elfish figure with magical flying reindeer.  During the American Civil War, artist Thomas Nash gave St. Nicholas his more familiar name. Santa Claus became an enthusiastic Union supporter dressed in fur from head to toe.

American artists Rockwell, Wyeth, and Leyendecker captured the essence of Santa Claus in the early 20th-century. The jolly fat man received a fur-trimmed stocking cap, wide black belt, black boots, and a large bag of toys. This is also when red and white became his undisputed favorite colors.

By the time Sundblom got hold of him, Santa already resembled a Coke can in the American imagination. But Santa was still elfish, stern, and a little bit too much like a random fat guy in a funny suit. Evidently, that didn’t make people want to run out and drink Coca-Cola.

Sundblom solved the problem by recruiting his neighbor, a fat, jolly salesman, to model for him. The result was a magical looking image of a warm and friendly man people the world over began to identify with. For thirty years, Sundblom breathed life into his Santa. He played with toys, relaxed by the fire, and pilfered the Christmas feast from the refrigerator.

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A jolly Sanata demonstrating for an innocent child that it’s perfectly okay to snag a drink from someone else’s fridge without asking permission. By User:Husky [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
All this he did with a warm smile and a bottle of Coke. The images captured the imagination of the world, even in nations where “Santa” was more often portrayed as a wiry bishop. The rumor spread that Sundblom and Coca-Cola invented the iconic red and white suit of the American Santa Claus.

But it isn’t exactly true. What they did was standardize Santa as a fat kleptomaniac with a friendly face and a raging Coke addiction. And Christmas has been all the jollier ever since.  

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Creeptastic. Seriously. photo credit: Elf on a Shelf Playing with Knives via photopin (license)

 

My kiddos have outgrown their Santa years, and thankfully we never got into that creeptastic Elf on a Shelf thing. But they appreciate the magic of the legend, and they’ll have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. Because our stockings are still hung by the chimney with care, and my boys know St. Nicholas soon will be there.

He’ll be jolly-ish as he assembles surprises late into the night (maybe we could use an elf on our shelf). He’ll drink the Coke left for him on the hearth because he’ll need the caffeine. And before he stumbles bleary-eyed into bed, he might even raid the fridge.