Last holiday season, my family entered the danger zone. My 9-year-old nephew, a video-game addict whose bottom must surely be fusing to the couch by now, was asked to feed the dogs. An hour went by, and the bowls went unfilled. Someone made a vague reference to a watchful Santa, and without pausing his game he threw a side-eyed glance and muttered something like, "You don't really expect me to fall for that one anymore, do you?"
More troubling: the 3-year-old niece had a nasty habit of getting out of bed and sneaking into her parents' bedroom to watch cartoons. I was on the phone with her mother when she detected the distinct sounds of "Phineas & Ferb" emanating upstairs. Mom reminded her precocious daughter that if she kept misbehaving, Santa would take all of her presents and give them to other children. The response, verbatim: "Mommy! Santa better not give any of my toys to other kids!"
And just like that, The Santa Threat no longer worked. The 9-year-old is understandable; that's about the age kids figure out that the elves probably aren't pumping out Nintendo DSes and iPads along with rocking horses and dollies. But a 3-year-old no longer cowed by the idea of Santa skipping her stocking? I can remember sobbing as a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old, my parents bellowing that Christmas would be cancelled if my brothers and I didn't clean up our disaster area of a bedroom. Were my parents more terrifying than parents today? Are modern kids tougher? And if we give up on The Santa Sanction, what hope do the parents of this nation have in keeping their hyped-up kids in line during the holiday season?
The answer may lie in the distant past. Shortly after the niece's cartoon tantrum, my roommate introduced me to Krampus, an archaic Eastern European holiday icon he heard about via his hairdresser. (It's always the hairdressers.) According to folklore, Krampus -- a terrifying goat-man hybrid that looks like, well, Satan -- used to pal around with St. Nicholas during the holiday season. While St. Nick gave presents to the good kids, Krampus would threaten and punish the bad ones. Sometimes he would beat them with birch rods. Other times he'd throw them in a sack and drag them to the pits of Hell. Krampus did not mess around.
One quick Wikipedia search later I knew Krampus was the answer. "This will make them clean their rooms, and be polite and respectful," I thought. "This will make them cry."
I know what you're thinking: what kind of sicko advocates terrorizing little kids? But the truth is, humanity has a long, rich tradition of scaring the bejeezus out of children for their own good. Consider fairy tales. "Hansel and Gretel" teaches kids not to be greedy. "Pinocchio" warns about what happens when you behave like an ass. "The Three Little Pigs" imparts important lessons about sound mason work. You get the picture. Most of the classics have been cleaned up for modern audiences -- they used to be much more graphic in the old days -- but the moral lessons remain. Be good, lest you get eaten by wolves or some other terrible creature.
It's no different with Krampus, or any of his creepy holiday brethren. That's right: there's a whole bunch of anti-Santas who allegedly tormented naughty children in various regions of Europe for centuries. My favorites include:
-KnechtRuprecht, typically associated with 17th- century Germany. Legend says that he was an old man who would test children about whether or not they could pray. Those who could pray got nuts, gingerbread, and fruit; those who couldn't were given crappy presents like stick or stones. Or he simply beat them with a bag full of ashes.
-La PereFouettard, or "The Whipping Father," from 12th-century France. He dispensed lumps of coal and floggings to the naughty children while St. Nicholas handed out gifts to the well behaved.
-Black Peter, from the Netherlands. Peter is tough to describe. There are some uncomfortable racial associations, and in modern times he apparently has been recast as some kind of jester. But here's something that might spook the kids: Pete apparently used to snatch up bad children, throw them into a giant dufflebag, and smuggle them off to Spain. But really, who's going to turn down a free trip to Spain, kidnapped or not?
There are others, but I'm sticking with Krampus. For one thing, he's the scariest and most effective. And also, there's an underground pop-culture movement to bring him back into the spotlight. He was referenced recently on "The Venture Bros." cartoon and by Stephen Colbert in his 2009 holiday special. There are YouTube videos of young Eastern European guys holding festivals in his honor, where they make Krampus costumes and chase and beat passersby with huge sticks. Last year, I even found Krampus brew in the fancy international beer section in Wegmans. He's a rising star, and I am totally riding on his evil coattails.
This year I started introducing Krampus to the kids during our Halloween pumpkin-carving party. They were barking out demands and grabbing equipment with nary a please or thank you in the mix. I brought up that Christmas is coming, and that this year, Santa might bring a friend with him. That friend, Krampus, doesn't like kids who don't use their manners, or don't listen to their parents. In fact, he takes bad kids, puts them in a sack, and whacks them with sticks. And he watches them all the time, just like Santa.
Suddenly the "pleases" entered the conversation. The whining stopped. My sister-in-law said that apropos of nothing, last week the now-4-year-old asked about Krampus. She's not necessarily scared, but she seems wary, perplexed. The experiment is working. I'm planning to kick things up a notch by handing out Krampus dossiers for the Thanksgiving road trip to grandma's house. (I'm leaving out the pits-of-hell part, at least for a few more years. Baby steps.)
A few friends have reacted in horror to the plan, and truthfully I get their point: it is mean to deliberately scare children. I love my nieces and nephews dearly, I really do. But they can be insufferable when the mood takes them, and if these cautionary tales worked on our great- great- great-grandparents, why not use them now? The carrot no longer works, because at least in our family, the kids know they're going to get presents under the tree, no matter how obnoxious they are. So now we're trying the stick. And if those YouTube videos and folk tales are to be believed, nobody works a stick like my man Krampus.