Christmas in America is inextricably linked to the image of Santa Claus, the jolly old man who visits on Christmas Eve to bring presents to good children and coal to the bad. This image, like most Christmas traditions, developed during the Victorian period.
Similar figures had evolved in countries across the world by this time. They often echoed the generosity of St. Nicholas by leaving presents for the good, but like the saint, many had counterparts who punished the bad.
With the mass migration of people to California for the gold rush, did these Yuletide legends reach the gold fields? The historical record currently provides little insight into the Yuletide practices of the various immigrant groups in Placer County.
Did Claude Chana grow up wishing for treats from Père Noël, but fearing the evil Père Fouettard?
Did Enid Griffith ever hear the story of the Mari Lwyd from her Great Uncle Griffith Griffith?
It’s an interesting question to pose, especially when the Bernhard Museum Complex is re-decorated every year to represent the typical Victorian Christmas a family like the Bernhard’s would have experienced. As German immigrants, did Mr. and Mrs. Bernhard tell their children stories of St. Nicholas and his evil companion Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht? Or, like many traditions, did these figures slowly pass into obscurity and become absorbed into a new American identity?
In California, newspapers as early as 1897 recorded Christmas tales from “the Old Country.” Various articles in San Francisco at the turn of the century tell the story of St. Nicholas and his evil counterpart, Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, but they appear as mere superstitious folklore. In 1911, the Placer Herald even recommended the piano piece Knecht Ruprecht for holiday parties.
Most likely these stories were not widely known outside the homes or communities of early Placer County arrivals. Only one has begun to creep into the wider American Yuletide popular culture – Krampus.
Krampus is derived from the German word krampen for claw, and many believe he originated as a pagan ritual for the winter solstice. The historic record is inconclusive but evidence of Krampus’ existence dates to at least the 17th century. He acts as St. Nicholas’ devilish companion in the Alpine play The Reither Nikolausspiel.
According to folklore, Krampus appears the night of December 5th, known as Krampusnacht. He is typically half-man, half-goat, with wicked horns, claws or hooves, and a long red tongue. Typically draped in chains, he carries birch switches or a whip for beating kids. He often has a basket or sack strapped to his back to hold children.
On Krampusnacht, men dress in elaborate Krampus costumes and parade through the streets on a Krampuslauf (Krampus run) to scare, chase, or attack spectators.
In legend, Krampus and St. Nicholas are said to visit homes together on December 5th. Nice children are rewarded with presents or candy, while Krampus beats the naughty, and in some cases, eats them or drags them to hell.
Like the threat of coal in your stocking, Krampus was meant to scare children into behaving themselves. In the late 19th century, Krampuskarten, or postcards depicting the demon, swept Germany and Austria. Most read “Gruss von Krampus” (Greetings from Krampus) with him beating or kidnapping children.
Others were more adult and revealed some of the more mature subjects that surrounded the demon.
These other Krampuskarten show Krampus either as a woman punishing misbehaving men or Krampus seducing or punishing seductive women.
Under these circumstances, efforts were made by the Catholic Church and conservative political parties to ban the creature. However, none succeeded.
In the United States, after the turn of the 21st century his popularity has grown as an alternative Yuletide celebration and in popular culture.
In Austria and parts of Germany, Krampus has been further marketed with the sale of figurines and collectible horns.
Citing complaints of over commercialization, small towns across the Alps continue the practice in more traditional ways.
It’s hard to know what stories were circulating through the gold fields in Placer County during the Yuletide season. Perhaps some youthful miners fell asleep with thoughts of St. Nicholas in their head, while others saw Krampus lurking in the dark ravines.
Who do you expect to visit your home on the evening of December 5th?