Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ghost of Christmas past

I know Christmas is now but a distant memory, but I wanted to share some odd folklore (I guess that's what it is -- it hardly qualifies as an anecdote) from my mother-in-law's childhood.

A few months ago I came across an online article about Krampus, "Santa's sinister sidekick" in Germany and other alpine countries. While Santa brings toys and candy to good children, demonic-looking Krampus beats bad kids with a stick. "Hey," I thought, "that sounds like that creepy guy Heidi told me about." On Christmas morning, over leftover potatoes and bockwurst, I got Heidi to tell me again about her experience with Krampus -- or, as she recalls him, Krambambus.

Heidi was born in Germany during World War II. After the war ended and Berlin got divvied up by the Allied forces, she and her family found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Eventually they fled to the West (a story for another day) and were living in a Quonset hut in northern Germany. All well and good, but winter was coming on and that hut was cold; the family didn't have a lot of money and the only shoes Heidi owned were sandals. Her parents decided to send her to live with her Aunt Liesl in a town called Passau, in Bavaria, much farther to the south. Heidi was four years old.

Heidi lived in Passau for the better part of a year. Her aunt was a widow who lived with her 18-year-old stepson Walter and a maid, Else. She owned what Heidi called a drugstore, although it sounds more elegant than that: she sold fancy soaps and colognes, among other nice things. Liesl lived in a big apartment in an old building, and Heidi, who was not in school, roamed its dark halls and, indeed, the entire town.

Somewhere along the way Heidi got the idea of giving "facials" to earn some money. I say "facials" because the whole procedure consisted of little Heidi spreading an egg white on someone's face, then waiting for the egg white to dry and washing it off. She charged 50 pfennig for this, which I think amounted to a few cents. She found quite a few customers -- I've seen pictures of her as a little girl, and she was adorable.

One of her customers, a gentleman, failed to inquire about her service fee until the facial had been washed off. He grumbled, "I'll pay it, but it's too expensive. Krambambus is going to come looking for you." Heidi didn't know who or what Krambambus was, but she knew it sounded bad. She tried to give the man back his money, but he wouldn't take it. He warned her to watch out. (When she was retelling the story, she said she now thinks he was sort of mock-scolding her, the way you tell American kids to be good or they won't get anything from Santa, but at the time she was pretty scared.) Later she asked some of the older kids in the neighborhood, "What is Krambambus?" They told her (and I'm quoting her now), "He's this awful guy covered in chains who comes looking for children to hit."

A few weeks later, she overheard kids saying, "Krambambus is coming! Krambambus is coming!" Heidi specifically remembers it being Fasching, or Carnival season, which roughly coincides with Mardi Gras and Lent, although Krambambus (or Krampus) is supposed to show up in early December. Anyway, she became frightened and hid in the darkest corner under a staircase in her aunt's apartment building. She remembers hearing chains rattling, and then she saw Krambambus! She thinks now some guy had been hired to portray Krambambus for Fasching to terrify kids and entertain adults, but at the time he seemed very real. He didn't discover her hiding place and she survived to tell the tale.

Today she doesn't know whether her memory somehow transmogrified the word "Krampus" into "Krambambus," or whether the latter name is a regional moniker for Santa's sinister sidekick (I suspect the former). Heidi has all kinds of interesting stories from her childhood in Germany, and this one seems to be one of the earliest and most vivid of them.


Pile Girl said...

Wow, that must have been scary!
Thanks for sharing her story.

Lucy said...

I've been hearing more and more about Krampus lately. It's such a stereotypically German idea. Around these parts we keep kids in line with the promise of gifts from a kindly old guy named Santa in exchange for good behavior. The Germans cut right to the chase; be good or a terrifying demon will kill you. Nice!

kb said...

Fascinating story! Hmmm, now I have a new character to use on my kids. I think I'll save him for those long weeks of summer vacation when I hear constant fighting and cries of "I'm bored!"