Denton is well known as a unique hangout with more than it’s fair share of eccentric local characters, but we wonder how many folks know that once a year we have a bonafide yuletide monster mysteriously walking our downtown Square? Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll explain why Krampus the Christmas Demon is the real reason you better watch out and better not cry this holiday season!
We weren't sure whether to laugh out loud or run for cover last December 5th when we first encountered the Denton Krampus on the downtown square, as the towering monstrosity was handing out toys to kids in a bit of uncharacteristic generosity. Krampus in 17th century European folklore was the sinister doppelgänger to the kindly Saint Nicholas that we Americans have come to know as Santa Claus. In a dark twist straight out of a Brother’s Grimm tale, St. Nick rewarded the good children with gift-giving around the Winter Solstice, the naughtiness of ill-behaved youngsters was viciously punished by the Krampus, a cloven-hooved Devil in chains with a long lash-like tongue who beat brats with switches before stuffing them in a basket for a late-night snack after his rounds. Krampusnacht, or sometimes Krampustag, was the day of judgment that fell on the eve of December 6th Saint Nicholas Day and used to strike terror into every unruly street urchin. It’s not too surprising that our American version of a jolly old elf slow-sippin’ a Coke doesn’t include his nightmare-inducing Demon companion, but you gotta hand it to the Old World traditions for their sheer inventiveness in creating perfectly legit reasons for kids to wet the bed. Threats from parents that you’ll get a lump of coal from Santa in your stocking truly pales in comparison to the Krampus going medieval on you for bad behavior!
But this whole Krampustag thing gets even nuttier because a visit from Krampus was no idle threat! A lot of Texans today take their kids to the mall for a picture postcard with some rummy dressed as ole Santa to hang on the fridge, but back in the day people straight-up rolled from house to house dressed as St. Nick and his Krampus cohort! While the Christmas Devil was largely exorcised from American holidays, the tradition of Krampusnacht has enjoyed a resurgence in parts of Europe and the Netherlands where drunken mobs of costumed Krampus (Krampii??) roam the nighttime streets during Winter festivals. Just take a look at some of the mid-1800s European postcards, which range from the bizarrely surreal to the suggestively lascivious, and you may have an entirely new perspective on the reason for the season. There’s a lot about the Krampus that reminds me of our Denton Goatman’s Bridge legend, so maybe he ain’t so foreign after all. You also gotta wonder how much of this mythos was lifted by Christian Protestantism for use in the Sunday morning pulpit, since The Devil has clearly taken a few fashion cues from Krampus but, instead of facing eventual judgment in the afterlife from Old Scratch Lucifer, your reckoning came as a horrifying annual evaluation every December 5th.
The Denton Square Krampus is a decidedly fun mix of the old and the new, handing out toys and candy to the kiddies rather than beatings and night-terrors. We gotta admit, it was a giggle-inducing hoot to watch smiling parents trying to coax rightfully-skeptical little ones into approaching this towering monster for free goodies. Yet another reason to not trust adults, kiddos, Henry Rollins ain’t wrong. We were never able to ascertain the identity of the mysterious benefactors behind last year’s Krampustag mystery performance (be sure to drop us a line if you have an inside scoop), but we sure do hope this bit of Old World tradition from back in the day continues. So keep up the frighteningly awesome work Denton Krampus, whoever you are, and we’ll remind the youngsters why they better watch out and best not cry… ‘Cuz Santa Claus ain’t the only one who’s comin’ to town.
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.
More info on Denton's Krampus can be found here.