Christmas Demons II - Krampus and Perchta (18 Dec 2014)
By Miss Stephanie Gallon
The previous post discussed Icelandic legends as Christmas demons. I urge you to read it to fully understand this one. In this post, I will discuss two more mainstream Christmas demons: Krampus and Perchta. At the end, I will come to a conclusion over why these figures have fallen from popular mainstream consciousness.
Krampus is the most widely recognised of the Christmas demons. In 17th Century Alpine legends, he travels with St Nicholas to dole out punishments to naughty children with a rod of birch. The particularly naughty children are kidnapped and taken away to his lair. Some variation of the myth say this is where he devours them, though most leave the demise of the children up to interpretation.
Krampus existed in Bavaria earlier than the 17th Century, dating back to the times of a Germanic Paganism. When Bavaria and its neighbours became Christian countries, an attempt was made to rid the land of Krampus. During the Inquisition in the 12th Century, the Catholic Church tried to eradicate the celebration of Krampus because of his devilish appearance. This would not be the only time in history that Krampus was subjected to censorship. After the Austrian Civil War in 1934, the Dollfuss Regime under the Vaterländische Front (Fatherland Front) prohibited the celebration of Krampus, a move that was supported by the Christian Social Party. Later in the 20th century, the celebrations returned, and are still celebrated in many alpine countries.
As Krampus exists as a creature in many folklores, his appearance can be wildly different. Still, the features that remain constant paint a picture of a creature that would terrify any good Christian. He is a hairy beast, with cloven hooves and horns, essentially a devil that rides with Santa Claus.
He is a Pagan-like devil, carrying with him a sack to carry children in and a birch rod to beat them. To many ancient European cultures, birch was a symbol of home and hearth, used inside home to invoke protection. To have a creature invade your home and use birch to attack children would have been terrifying. In some depictions, that rod is a whip. He uses chains and sometimes bells to signal his arrival. Chains in the Christian church were symbolic of the binding of the devil, restraining his evil powers.
Perchta is a Southern Germanic goddess usually associated with Pagan Alpine countries. She was a wild deity that resided in the mountains and caves. She appears during the Twelve Days of Christmas to oversee the spinning of clothes, as is her dominion the Germanic pantheon. She is said to roam villages between the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany, especially during Twelfth Night. It is generally accepted that if you anger her on her feast day by eating anything other than fish and gruel, she will come in the night, slit your stomach open and stuff the stomach with straw. She is also the giver of wealth, and many stories have her gifting deserving mortals with riches for their kindness or good deeds. It may seem like an odd combination of traits, but it is not uncommon. Hades in Greek mythology was god of both death and riches. The juxtaposition of the two is common in legends and folklore.
In Bavaria and Austria though, she has a more festive role. She roams the villages during Christmas time, and enters the rooms of all the children. A good child who has worked hard may wake up to find a silver coin in their boot as reward. Naughty children would have their stomach slit, their insides pulled out and replaced with straws and pebbles. She paid particular attention to the young girls whose chores were to spin the flax.
Perchta is usually depicted as a women white robes. Older variations of her legends describe her as having one large foot, like a swan. In Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie (1835), he writes:
"It is apparently a swan-maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside...and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle"
He considered the foot a reminder that she can shape shift, a feature not reported in her Christmas lore. People were said to leave food for her around this time, in hopes of being granted prosperity for the new year. This was much to the chagrin of the Medieval Church, providing a counter-argument to the idea proposed by John Smith in Perchta the Belly Slitter and her Kin. He proposed that the Medieval Church invented Perchta to encourage people to stay in line, though this is unlikely given how people were more likely to pray to Perchta than the Virgin Mary, as discussed in Lotte Motz’s essay The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures.
Perchta is still celebrated in Austria as part of the Perchten. It involves wooden animal masks, with the beautiful masks encouraging financial windfalls, and the ugly masks worn to drive away evil spirits. It is a celebration dating to the 16th Century, and is celebrated during times such as the Carnival Fastnacht.
Countless other cultures have beings similar to this. In Italy for example, they have a being called La Befana, and she is an old woman who leaves sweets for good children, and coal for the bad. Whilst the histories of these Christmas demons is fascinating, their stories are told for didactic reasons: to scare children and teach them the importance of behaving well and working hard. These tales are horrific, but they act as lessons and encourage us to be embody the best of Christian spirit. The Yule Cat may attack those without new clothes at Christmas, but it encouraged those more fortunate to help the people in poverty and illness who could not get new clothes for themselves or their children. Likewise, Grýla may take children away, but if they repent for their wickedness they are freed. Penance and charity are the keystones of Christian faith, and these demons inspire them in people. Krampus remains a prevailing figure to those who remember him. In American Dad, an animated satire about an American Republican family, they make the argument in one of their Christmas specials that Krampus is the only one who truly cares for the children. Santa is the capitalist war-monger and Krampus the embodiment of tough love. Grimm, a fairy tale inspired crime-drama, is another show which presents Krampus as its Monster of the Week, albeit in his traditional role as child-eater. They are mainstream shows on major American networks, retelling the myth of Krampus to Western European and American countries which never truly accepted Krampus in to our lore.
The monster under the bed, the bogeyman and now these demons. Fear is an almost essential rite of passage in our childhood, and these Gothic Christmas creatures should be welcomed in to our homes this Christmas.