Krampus: A Better Law/Gospel Paradigm Than Santa Claus

December 6th is the day the Church remembers and gives thanks to God for the life and confession of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. This is from Concordia Publishing House’s Treasury of Daily Prayer: “Of the many saints commemorated by the Christian Church, Nicholas (d. AD 342) is one of the best known. Very little is known historically of him, though there was a church of Saint Nicholas in Constantinople as early as the sixth century. Research has affirmed that there was a bishop by the name of Nicholas in the city of Myra in Lycia (part of modern Turkey) in the fourth century. Form that costal location, legends about Nicholas have traveled throughout time and space. He is associated with charitable giving in many countries around the world and is portrayed as the rescuer of sailors, the protector of children, and the friend of people in distress or need. In commemoration of Sinte Klaas (Dutch for “Saint Nicholas”, in English “Santa Claus”), December 6 is a day for giving and receiving gifts in many parts of Europe.”

My older son, Collin, received a board book from CPH about Saint Nicholas from his godparents last year that details a legend about St. Nicholas. In the story, the Bishop heard of a poor family who was unable to afford a dowry for their three daughters. Nicholas was concerned, prayed for the family, and then dressed in his red, fir-lined cloak, went to the family’s house and dropped bags of money through an open window. Today, children will put out stockings or shoes and St. Nicholas will come and fill them with chocolate gold coins. I suppose this is one of those fun things families can do this time of year, but I’m more interested in the other side of this legend: Krampus.

And the Krampus shall lead...
And the Krampus shall lead…

In some places, Krampus is St. Nicholas’s demonic travelling companion. Instead of the American Santa Claus who threatens to put children on the naughty list and give them coal, St. Nicholas sends Krampus to do his dirty work. Depending on where you live (and perhaps how heathenish your kids are), Krampus’s punishments range from giving sticks as stocking stuffers as a reminder to children to be good to being dragged off in Krampus’s burlap sack, beaten with sticks, and thrown into an icy river. I also like to think of Krampus as someone who might take the worst of the worst back to his lair (which is probably in hell) in order to roast their sin-blackened hearts over hot coals. And all this time, you thought having repentance as a major theme in Advent was a thing of the past!

Roasting sin-blackened hearts
Roasting sin-blackened hearts
early 20th cent
An early 20th century photo of St. Nicholas and his Krampus friends

Krampus’s origins are disputed, but I did learn an interesting fact about Krampus from Wikipedia (Yes, I’ve already taken my grain of salt). It says, “In the 1600s, the Lutheran Church (emphasis mine) presented a “christchild” (sic) figure in the place of the Catholic Saint Nicholas. Representing the baby Jesus but often appearing as a young maiden, this figure was also paired with Krampus in some areas.” In some places, Krampus parades are becoming increasingly popular.

krampus wagon

I suppose I ought to make a theological point in here someplace. First, maybe we ought to think of the Krampus/St. Nicholas dichotomy as a new paradigm to supplement or replace Law and Gospel. If you transgress God’s Law, instead of being threatened and condemned by Moses, perhaps pastors could start sicking stick-wielding demons upon their unrepentant sheep. For those who live a life of repentance, pastors could write to the Bishop of Myra (or maybe we Missourians could write to the District President of Myra) on behalf of these dear saints.

Second, I’d also like to assert that the Krampus/St. Nicholas dichotomy is a much better Law/Gospel distinction than the American Santa Claus. Think about it. What’s one of the first question Santa Claus asks when you sit on his lap? “Have you been a good little boy this year?” Santa Claus, in his American form, is totally about works righteousness. I would also argue that Santa’s tactics of attempting to make good little children by using the threats of the naughty list and coal (two threats—two tables of the law? Coincidence?) is a prime example of a violation of Dr. Walther’s XXIII Thesis on Law and Gospel. It states, “In the nineteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when an attempt is made by means of the demands or the threats or the promises of the Law to induce the unregenerate to put away their sins and engage in good works and thus become godly; on the other hand, when an endeavor is made, by means of the commands of the Law rather than by the admonitions of the Gospel, to urge the regenerate to do good.” Those unregenerate kids aren’t going to become godly, even if they are able to put away their outward sins for a month. Likewise, the Christian kids aren’t going to produce any good works when threatened with the same. Just so we’re clear here, Santa Claus (and his creepy cohort, Elf on the Shelf) is a horrible mixing of Law and Gospel.

There is, however, a clear distinction between Law and Gospel with Krampus and St. Nicholas. Are your kids unregenerate heathens? Here come Krampus! Are your kids Baptized and find their lives hidden in Christ? Have some gold coins in your shoes, kid! (Or something like that.)

Finally, much like with the American Santa Claus, Krampus can see your wicked deeds. Maybe some of the less than confessional elements in Missouri could use a little visit from our European friend. After all, he’s not completely foreign to Lutheranism, remember? Gruß vom Krampus!

Try wearing this to your parish's ugly Christmas sweater party!  That'll teach them to sing Christmas hymns in Advent!
Try wearing this to your parish’s ugly Christmas sweater party! That’ll teach them to sing Christmas hymns in Advent!

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