Toon Musings: Beastmen of Yuletide
Well, I see by my current iTunes playlist that it’s that time of year again: that enchanting time when a demigod strides the land, casting a seasoned eye on the children of our hapless race, carefully weighing whether they’ve behaved themselves during the past year, and when he finds those whose deeds fulfill his exacting standards, he… savagely beats them with his bundle of sticks, stuffs them into his voluminous basket, and carries them to Hell! I am, of course, speaking of the Krampus, and yes, you should have seen that switcheroo coming. Honestly, how long have you been reading this column?
The first time I encountered the Krampus was in 2004 while watching a cartoon on the electric televison machine:
I thought to myself at the time, “What perverse and inventive fellows, to dream up such a demented concept!” And then I found out that the Krampus was an actual thing. Turns out he’s a half-goat, half-human demon from central European folklore whose job was to deliver a beatdown to naughty kids and drag them somewhere not-nice.
That triggered a memory; one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, created an alternate universe where gods and mythical beings exist. This world’s Santa analog was called the Hogfather, a sort of half-man, half-pig, who every December 32nd delivered presents to children from a sled pulled by a brace of wild boars.
Then I remembered a lyric from Elvis Costello’s holiday song, There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In, written for Steven Colbert’s 2008 Christmas Special:
“A Redeemer, and a Savior, and a Beast-man giving toys for good behaviour…”
Coincidence?! Surely not! Could there be a connection between the myths of the Winter Solstice, the mythical being we know as Santa and murky tales of some human-animal chimera handing out prezzies and beatings, or maybe both? My mind raced. A cursory search could not turn up the reasoning behind Mr. Pratchett’s creation; perhaps Elvis would show me the way. A search turned up a Christian site that had a discussion of the lyrics to the song. I scrolled eagerly to the lyric in question:
“A Redeemer, and a Savior, an obese man giving toys for good behaviour…”
Oh well. Like an angler who’s striven mightily against a worthy fish only to haul up an old boot, I recast my line— perhaps I’d catch the other boot!
As it turns out, there’s a wealth of references to judgmental beast-men loitering about in some of the seedier precincts of the solstice season. Besides the Krampus, there is Pelznickel (or Furry St. NIck), also known as Belsnickel, An old bearded man who dressed in furs, chains, bells, and sometimes a mask with a long tongue, or alternatively, in women’s garb, and who would scatter candy on the ground, then whip the resultant mob of scrambling children with a switch. One imagines this is when sadomasochism was born.
Then there’s Perchta, an old woman with an animal (usually a swan) foot. With this one, good children got a coin, bad children got gutted and stuffed with straw. In Sweden, children looked forward to the arrival of Julbokken, the gift-giving goat
Another shady Yule character was an innkeeper who had killed three boys and stashed their bodies in salting barrels in his cellar. Upon discovering the corpses, St. Nick resurrected them and then pressed the murderer into service doling out corporal punishment to the naughty. He serves as sort of a sidekick and is known variously as Hans Trapp, Schmutzli, or Père Fouettard and is found in a multitude of forms. Knecht Ruprecht was also a sidekick, and would beat bad children with a bag of ashes and leave the switches for the parents to use. Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) was St. Nick’s attendant and generally just handed out sweets and entertained the crowd. He wasn’t judgemental, and wasn’t in any sense a beast, but rather a relatively exotic racial minority; but he’s usually depicted in blackface, so there’s that to consider.
But the Krampus has captured the imagination of anarchic animators and hipsters across the country, mostly because he’s so damned strange. Violent and demonic , he serves as sort of an Anti-Claus. Kids these day, they just love a Bad Boy.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.