Christmas starts early in Austria when young men in oversized shoes parade through the streets of Salzberg rattling chains, clanging cowbells, and waving sticks at bewildered kids. Welcome to Krampuslauf, which pays tribute every December 5 to the ancient boogeyman known as Krampus.
With his devil-like hoof, tail, serpentine tongue, whipping stick, and sack full of misbehaving kids, Krampus emerged as Northern Europe's bad cop to kindly Saint Nicholas more than three centuries ago. But when Saint Nick migrated to the United States in the 1800s and morphed into fat, jolly Santa Claus, Krampus stayed behind.
Krampus finally gets his close-up in America thanks in part to Monte Beauchamp. The Chicago comic book publisher launched the cult of Krampus after he came across a cache of antique postcards printed in Germany 100 years ago during the golden age of chromolithography.
The now-obsolete printing technique produced unusually rich colors that gave rise to a fantasy postcard craze that swept Europe in the late 1800s and made Krampus something of a holiday greeting superstar.
"The illustrations of Krampus exuded great character and imagination," says Beauchamp. "I'd never seen postcards printed that well before and I really liked the whole fantasy element."
Emboldened by reader response to Krampus card art published in his 2001 BLAB! comic book, Beauchamp compiled Krampus: The Devil of Christmas followed by a greeting card collection. Last month, he expanded the brand with playing cards and the Krampus Sticker Book (Last Gasp).
Besides Krampus, Europe's dark fairy tale tradition also spawned such holiday freaks as Dutch kidnapper Zwart Piete, Czechoslovakia's child-beating evil spirt Cert and disheveled German creep Knecht Ruprecht. Beauchamp reckons Americans are finally in the mood for some Krampus-inflicted shock treatment. "Krampus brings a little bit of angst to Christmas when people imagine there's this dark, foreboding figure out there who's watching your every move. If you do something bad, you may disappear and be cast into the flames of hell."
Check out the slide show for a sampling of full-color Krampus beauty shots.
[Images courtesy of Krampus, the Devil of Christmas © 2010 Monte Beauchamp]