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When I was a child, I never associated St. Nicholas with demons or scary beings of any kind. Sure, St. Nick might leave coal and switches for a naughty child, just as Santa Claus was rumored to do. However, I wasn’t naughty enough to worry about that kind of treatment.

Some stories described a little black boy named Peter who accompanied St. Nicholas, carrying the big sack with all the toys and goodies. My impression of “Black Peter” was he was sweet and helpful, not frightening. Actually, I was a little jealous of him. I wouldn’t have minded traveling around with St. Nicholas, going to parties with him to distribute oranges and playthings, helping fill those intriguing wooden shoes the Dutch children left on their doorsteps instead of hanging up stockings.

I first learned of the Devil, or Krampus, that supposedly traveled with St. Nicholas when I took some traveler’s German classes. When Mom and I made a trip to Germany and Austria in 1990 to visit some of the Christmas markets, we saw for ourselves how much the Devil is associated with the celebration of St. Nicholas.

In Innsbruck, I saw foil-wrapped chocolate devils in a candy store window among the chocolate Santas and marzipan. In fact, while we were out strolling near the Golden Roof one afternoon, we saw two teenage girls dressed in red tights, plastic  horns, and pointed tails walking toward us. They had baskets and were passing out treats. It was two days before the Feast of St. Nicholas.

The incident that truly brought the full impact of the Krampus home to me was in Salzburg the next evening. It was after dark just off the main square where the market was set up, and we stood waiting for the tour bus to arrive to take us back to the hotel.

Suddenly there was a ruckus coming from one of the narrow medieval streets, a racket of tinny clanging and shouting. We turned as one just in time to see a cherry bomb explode, and then the approach of some appalling-looking creatures. They were tall, covered with long fur, and had winding antlers protruding from either side of their horrific faces. There was an entire crowd of them marching around, taunting the people along the street, clanging their noisemakers and doing their best to make a nuisance of themselves.

I think we were all flattened against the front of the building where we stood as the krampus riot passed by, although we certainly were laughing as well. One gentleman in his late 60s, a veteran, proclaimed in his Texas drawl, “I’m not scared of anything, and that scared me!”

Later our tour guide explained this was a tradition on St. Nicholas Eve. I was pleased to have witnessed an actual “krampus attack.” Before we boarded our bus in downtown Salzburg, we saw a big truck with a crowd of krampus loaded in back. The tailgate was up, and as the truck drove away, a swarm of boys gleefully charged, plastering the truck (and a few of the demons huddling inside) with snowballs.

I never got any photos of the krampus parade, but if you go to YouTube and put “krampus” into the search field, you’ll pull up all kinds of videos of some terrifying (and often hilarious) creatures.

There’s also background information on the krampus here and here. And this site shows some very interesting (and very weird) early 20th century postcards featuring krampus.

Note: The photo at the top of this post is of a little krampus figurine I got for my mother from Silver Crow Creations, purveyers of the wonderous and unique. I bought one for the Hooligans as well, hiding it in the branches of the small pink aluminum tree Diamonqueen keeps in the kitchen. When we went out driving to see Christmas lights one evening last week, I suggested maybe the krampus would visit while we were gone to check on the Hooligan children and report back to Santa if they were being good. I said maybe he’d leave a sign. When the Krampus figure was discovered lurking among the pink shimmery branches of the kitchen tree, it gave even J.Hooligan pause (although I can’t detect any improvement in his behavior because of it.)

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