Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Hungarian Christmas: Szent Mikulas, Krampusz and Switches to Beat Children With

Budapest, Hungary at Christmastime via

I'm proud to be a 2nd generation Hungarian. My mom is Hungarian with a side of Italian and Romanian. Every year around Christmas, she'd tell me and my sister to put a boot in our windows so she could fill it up with little goodies and candy. I thought it was fun, and who doesn't like extra candy? I don't remember her making it a big deal and trying to make us believe it was Santa leaving the candies, so I didn't really associate it with Christmas all that much. I just knew there was one day a year when she'd remind us to put our boots in the window, and the next morning we'd have candy and small presents in them. 
When I had my own daughters, I wanted to carry on that tradition, so I became more curious about the holiday. Come to find out it's how Hungarians celebrate December 6th-St. Nicholas Day or Mikulas Nap. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day children put a boot in the window andMikulas (Santa) leaves candies, nuts, fruit and a chocolate Santa. Unlike the western Santa who is fat and wears big plush robes, Mikulas has a more slender figure, wears red and white bishop robes, and carries a staff.

Santa brings along an angel to give out presents to good children andKrampusz (a mythical devil-like creature) who punishes the naughty boys and girls. Similar to the western tradition of a lump of coal, naughty children are warned that Krampusz will steal their presents and leave a switch for them to be beaten with. Traditionally a small bunch of golden twigs, representing the Krampusz's switch is put in each boot along with the candies and small toys. I didn't get switches in my boots when I was a child...probably because I was always nice. Well, probably because they don't sell little bunches of golden switches on the streets in America like they do in Hungary during Christmastime.

In Hungary, Krampusz is depicted as a creature with small red horns and a long red tongue. People often dress up as Krampusz to make an appearance with Mikulas, sometimes in scary masks and sometimes in simple devil costumes or devil horns.

However in other parts of Europe, like Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, people dress up as Krampusz with frightening carved masks that have long pointed horns. Some of those countries' traditional Krampusz is depicted wearing a cloth sack or a basket on their backs, with which they can carry naughty children off to hell in. I wonder if that is where the phrase "to Hell in a hand basket" came from. During festivities, men dress up as Krampusz and roam the streets with their switches, frightening children. Nothing says the holidays like some stranger in a freaky-deaky horned mask scaring the shit out of young children!

Well, actually in this next picture it just looks like Halloween in America--an excuse for men to dress up, get drunk and hit on women who are out of their league. I'm definitely seeing a new version Twilight here. I can see it already, a woman falls in love with a Krampusz even though she knows she should stay away, because she has been bad. In turn, the Krampusz has to fight his inate urge to hit her with a switch, so instead he beats animals.

I prefer the version I grew up with--a simple boot in the window filled with candy and small toys from Santa. 

I'll leave you with some vintage postcards and images of Krampusz from various countries in that region. If these don't scare your children into being good, I don't know what will!

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