on August 9, 2004
Monte Beauchamp's dazzling 'The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards' (2004) is a collection of 147 vintage images of the dark and Pan-like Krampus, who, with his guiding companion St. Nikolaus, visited German and Austrian children at Christmastime.
But while St. Nikolaus rewarded the well behaved with small gifts, Krampus, as a more active presence, not only left switches for disobedient children with which their parents could beat them, but spanked, shackled, and even kidnapped the worst juvenile offenders, who were carried away and thrown into hell. Thus, a child's good behavior at Christmastime and indeed throughout the year took on an entirely different folkloric coloring than it did in America, a continent to which Krampus never successfully emigrated, though other parts of Europe had similar "dark" Christmas traditions.
Krampus was a childhood nighttime bogey and bedroom invader par excellence: small, horned, hairy, and black furred, he was almost identical to the archetypal Christian image of the devil. The classic Krampus figure was readily identifiable for his exceptionally long and permanently extended bright red tongue, as well as for having one cloven hoof in addition to a human foot.
The numinous Krampus was a hybrid figure composed of both comedic and frightening characteristics; his bestial appearance and unmistakably phallic tongue underscored the decidedly sexual angle in his nature, which several of the included images make apparent. As a liminal trickster of the "betwixt and between" and a daimonic violator of boundaries and boarders of all varieties, several of the cards appropriately portray the irrepressible Krampus as bursting free from the two dimensional wall of the card and into the laps and
The visionary illustrations of the Krampus Postcards are as powerful and strange as the beliefs and folklore upon which they were based. As Krampus is uniformly presented in jesting guise, the overall effect suggests that the children of the late 19th century and early 20th were no more seriously frightened by Krampus than American children of a slightly later era were by the witches and ghosts of Halloween decor and the corresponding folklore. That said, most of the artists clearly considered the Krampus image as a point of departure, and freely added a variety of subtle sociological twists that considerably widened the scope of basic theme.
Several cards portray Krampus as a welcomed gentleman seducer, appearing on women's doorsteps dressed in period eveningwear, while others depict him spying enthusiastically on presumably wayward lovers. Two images reveal Krampus as a puppeteer of men, causing mankind's sin as well as punishing it. Like the Fool in the classic Tarot deck, Krampus gleefully steps off the edge of the earth, a group of shackled children following closely behind him; like the Pied Piper, Krampus leads away a line of children so long that its end disappears into the image's distant horizon.
Apparently never shy about causing physical pain and discomfort, Krampus freely pulls children's hair, boxes their ears, and switches their bottoms. Though some children allow themselves to be led blandly away, others are clearly terrorized and beg last minute forgiveness; but regardless of their reaction to him, Krampus' expression of dutiful pleasure never changes.
He is also capable of diverse forms of mobility: when not leading children away on foot or painfully pulling them after him, Krampus is driving an automobile, arriving by train, riding a sled, or flying in primitive airplanes, suggesting that there are few places to which he doesn't have access. As a kind of reverse Santa Claus, Krampus carries a basket on his shoulders, typically filled not with dolls and other toys, but with captured human children whose stunned appearance suggests that they have become little more than objects. Several cards depict Krampus carrying off young offenders through the snow, revealing that he is as comfortable in freezing weather as he is in the fires of hell.
In one, a smiling snowman and an anthropomorphic half moon in a nighttime stocking cap look peacefully on as Krampus passes by with a child prisoner in the still of the night, suggesting that everything is as it should be.
There are also female Krampus figures, and mother, father, and son Krampus families. Fans of Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's 'Faust' (1994) will recognize the Krampus on page 80 as the model for one of that film's enormous devil puppets.
Most of the illustrations are traditional in character, and thus any sexual content is far from overt. However the fleshy and lascivious Krampus on page 50 clearly suggests the influence of Aubrey Beardsley, while the stylized Krampus of page 21 resembles nothing so much as a huge turgid phallus carried about on enormous cloven hooves.
Page 89's Krampus is nine tenths a rooster, or 'cock.' While Krampus is fond of carrying off huge baskets of adult women, including those of grandmotherly age, he is equally fond of strictly male audiences.
It has taken Krampus a hundred years to reach American shores, an event 'The Devil In Design: The Krampus Postcards' celebrates admirably. While some readers might prefer more historical information, Beauchamp's brief explanatory text provides the basic context needed to grasp the images: the illustrations, which speak volumes for themselves, do the rest.
Those interested in the evolution of Christmas folklore and other Krampus-like figures may also want to seek out Tony van Renterghem's 'When Santa Was a Shaman' (1995) and Phyllis Siefker's 'Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Man' (1997) for further information.