For many Europeans, the first week of December is when the holidays truly begin. Today is Dec. 6th, St. NIcholas’s Feast Day in many Catholic and Christian traditions. You probably know St. Nicholas is the saint who inspired Santa Claus–but who is Krampus, you ask? He’s a character from European folklore who accompanies St. Nicholas on Dec. 5th, the night before St. Nicholas’s Feast Day. Sort of a bad cop to St. Nick’s good cop. You can see him in old postcards (greeting cards called Krampuskarten) from Germany and the Swiss Alpine region, where the character can be found frightening bad children the first week of December. Today’s celebrations include parades of schnapps-swilling men in horrific beastly costumes and hordes of partiers snapping pictures on their iPhones. In some countries, the version of the character is accompanied by an angel and a saintly man wearing a mitre hat, as in the pic here.
This was taken on my trip to Prague in 2010, where their version of Krampus is known as Čert, or simply “the devil”. He’s far more tame than his kinsmen in the Alps. You even find him on candy wrappers and puppets there–the Czechs love their puppets!
On Dec. 5th, if you wander through the twinkling lights of Old Town Square–or any other busy throughway in Prague–you are bound to see a strange triumvirate: St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), the Angel (Anděl) who represents Good, and the Devil (Čert) representing Evil, naturally. The devil, or Krampus as he’s known more widely throughout Europe, is often depicted in chains to symbolize Christianity’s conquering of evil (evil generally symbolized as the “other”: various pagan tribes, the Moors–you can take your pick. The Catholic Church has a long history of putting a scary face on anything it sees as “the other”). In fact, the image of a wild, demon-man figure is iterated again and again throughout European folklore, albeit with local variations. For example, here in Pennsylvania, the Amish have a wildman called Belsnickel who is used to frighten children at the holidays (Dwight played him hilariously on The Office TV show a few years ago). I’m convinced these figures share a common source, are manifestations of the same archetype.
In the Czech Republic, these three characters–the angel, the devil and the saint–parade the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year. Kids sing a song or recite a short poem and are rewarded with sweets handed out by the angel. As in the Krampus legend, bad kids are to be whipped with birch twigs, put in a sack and carried off to hell. (Don’t worry. That doesn’t happen anymore. Mostly.) I’ve not made it to Germany to meet the actual Krampus, but I feel I’ve gotten to know him a little thanks to his Czech cousin.
Here in Philadelphia, a city that loves to party, to dress up in costumes at Halloween and at New Year’s, the Krampus tradition has been adopted in a celebration of Old World folklore held in Northern Liberties.
Philly’s fourth Krampus parade, or Krampuslauf (Krampus run) is next Saturday. Come for the seasonal food, bonfires, fire dancers, wild costumes, and even wilder Alpine traditions. Bring your cowbells and jingle bells and make some noise. Dress as an angel, St. Nicholas, or your favorite holiday character and get in on the grassroots parade, which is specifically designed to be family-friendly–ie, not too scary. A food truck will be on hand with seasonally themed delicacies. And, of course, Krampus will be there. It’a called the Krampuslauf Parade of Spirits after all, and it will be held at Liberty Lands park at dusk (4:30) on Sat. Dec. 13th, 2014 in Philadelphia. https://www.facebook.com/events/ 1494848880779514/?ref=ts&fref=ts
Philly also has a Santa Claus bar crawl, and–occassionally–a Krampus bar krawl. City Hall is home to a new ice skating rink at Dilworth Plaza, and LOVE Park is home to a holiday village featuring sellers of traditional Christmas ornaments and other handcrafted items. A Dickens Christmas Village draws crowds to Macy’s in Center City, and local choirs and churches have plenty of concerts and services in observance of Christmas. Pay the city a visit! And if you know of other fun holiday traditions in the city, add a comment below.