The Yuletide Beasts That Inspire Good Behavior ● by Elizabeth Ross

Naughty children, run! Mean children, hide! On the evening of Saturday, December 6, the Krampus will come to Bloomington. Who knows about all of the little tricks that were pulled and tantrums that were thrown by Bloomington children in 2014? The Krampus know.

We all know the story of Santa Claus leaving lumps of coal for naughty children to find in their stockings on Christmas morning. However, jolly Santa hardly ever brings children coal these days. Our modern-day Santa turns a blind eye to bad behavior, but in the Germanic tradition, St. Nicholas does not. St. Nicholas rewards nice children for their good behavior but also brings his beastly counterparts, the Krampus, to punish naughty children for bad behavior. Some historians believe that the story of Santa Claus leaving children lumps of coal originated with the Krampus. By reminding us that bad behavior has consequences, the Krampus teach us accountability and inspire good behavior.

[Photo: Aaron Lingenfelter]

The Krampus are large, hairy, wild beasts that have large horns. They’re grunting, grumpy creatures that bare their fangs and sharp claws at children who make mischief. They lumber and leer, but they are surprisingly quick when they chase the children who taunt them. According to legend, when the Krampus  use a sack or a basket to capture wicked children and whisk them away. When the Krampus encounter ill-behaved children, they’ll frighten them by growling, chasing them, shaking bells, clattering chains, and swatting with “routen” (switches that are made of birch branches). When they touch your face, they leave an ashen smudge that brings bad dreams. Krampus delight in frightening the wicked and take a mischievous approach when they mete out justice.

The legend of the Krampus predates Christianity; its roots are in the European mummery tradition of people dressing as animals and mythic creatures during the winter season, much like our Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating. In the eleventh century, German communities began to celebrate the Krampus tradition more frequently, and by the seventeenth century, the Christian Church paired the Krampus with St. Nicholas. The Catholic Church and the fascists of World War II tried to ban Krampus celebrations, but the tradition endured. Legend has it that the Krampus come on Krampusnacht, the night before St. Nicholas Day, the day when children look in their shoes to see if St. Nicholas left them in a treat as a reward for being good all year. Attending Krampus celebrations and sending Krampus-themed holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten are traditions that continue today. The Krampus have many names throughout Alpine Europe: Knecht Ruprecht, Perchten, and Pelznickle are a few. And the name “Krampus” comes from “krampen,” the German word for claw.

The Krampus came all the way from Alpine Europe to Bloomington three years ago, and they started a tradition of terrorizing the town every early December. They parade through downtown (down Madison Street, starting at 4th Street) as St. Nicholas directs them and their handlers reign them in. Last year they tromped through the snow as nice people watched them and naughty people feared them.

At the beginning of the parade, angels dressed in white hand out stickers labeled “naughty” and “nice” for children and adults. You decide which sticker to wear. (We have many naughty adults in Bloomington, and the Krampus know who you are!) Children can choose their sticker, or their parents can choose for them. Parents, you know your children best. If your child is frightened by picture day at the mall with Santa Claus, she probably isn’t ready for Krampus night. But if your child loves to taunt you and play “catch me if you can,” Bloomington Krampus Night might be the perfect time for him to wag his tongue and run while the Krampus chase after him. Wear a “nice” sticker, and St. Nicholas or an angel may give you candy for being good. The Krampus may look at you, puzzled, but they won’t torment you. Wear a “naughty” sticker and beware the Krampus that are coming for you!

This year you can visit the new Krampus bazaar in Shower’s Commons, where you can enjoy a festive winter celebration. Visit the bazaar before the parade if you want to play games, win prizes, and take pictures with photo backdrops. You can warm up by a fire pit with some food and drink. (Remember to bundle up!) After the parade, if you get to the bazaar quickly enough, you might be able to take a picture with a Krampus, if a handler can manage to get one of them to hold still for you.

Also beware the late-night fright of the Krampus. After the parade, during which they are under the tight control of St. Nicholas, the Krampus have been known to escape and run rampant around downtown Bloomington. You never know where they might go. You might turn around and jump when you find a Krampus lurking silently behind you as have a drink at a local pub.

Bloomington Krampus Night is brought to you by a crew of volunteers – local artists and friends in the Krampus Legend and Arts Workshop (KLAW) – and is primarily supported by your donations and in part by the City of Bloomington Arts Commission and the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association. This year the Krampus crew returned to Alpine Europe to capture more wild Krampus for the 2014 Bloomington event. To learn more and participate in a contest to name one of our new Krampus, get social media updates from the crew on Facebook (search “Bloomington Krampus”), Twitter (@btown_krampus), and Instagram (search “Bloomington Krampus”). Parents on Twitter, brag about your child’s good behavior if he is #stnickssaint, or call out your child’s bad behavior if she is #krampusbait. You can also enter your Krampus Night photos in our Instagram photo contest. For more information about the event, visit Krampus Night.

The Ryder ● December 2014