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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/20/2004 Archived Entry: ""Devil in the Design" review"

The Devil in the Design
Edited by Monte Beauchamp
Publisher: Fantagraphics
ISBN 1560975423

Reviewed by Kathryn L. Ramage

He knows when you've been bad or good… so be good for goodness sake!

The Krampus is a sort of anti-Santa, a devil in European folklore who acts as a "dark servant" to St. Nicholas. Author/designer Monte Beauchamp explains:

"In Austria, for example, [Christmas] festivities are well underway by December 6th, on St. Nikolaus Day–when God grants the legendary bishop a return visit to earth. He arrives bearing gifts, his big Book of Sins, and is joined by his controversial companion, the Krampus. As Nikolaus travels door to door doling out gifts to boys and girls who've been goldenly good all year, those who have behaved badly are dealt with by the Krampus." (p. 40)

The Devil in the Design is a collection of postcards commemorating the Krampus, first published in Germany in the late 1890's and continuing until 1914. The appearance of the Krampus changes from postcard to postcard - he can be tiny or giant, impishly cute or fiendishly horrific - but he is always depicted as a furry, horned creature whose distinguishing feature is a protruding tongue that Gene Simmons would envy. He often bears a basket on his back, carries a birch switch or broom to beat wrong-doers, and wears chains wrapped around his waist, sometimes attached to manacles on his wrists.

There isn't much to read here, only 7 pages of text - an introduction, a history of St. Nicholas, a description of the Austrian Krampuslauf festival ("The Running of the Krampus") and a history of the postcard - but more than 100 postcards are wonderfully and luridly reproduced. Opening to any page at random, I find myself in the midst of a bizarre, amusing, and sometimes disturbing array of images of the Krampus doing his job: lying in wait for unwary children and carrying off those who misbehave, usually in the basket on his back or leading them off bound in his chains. He occasionally carries off misbehaving adults too. (Although I couldn't help noticing that, while the children are screaming and crying, the grown-ups don't seem very upset at being abducted by a demon. Many of them appear quite complacent about their fate; some, particularly the ladies, are smiling. Draw your own inferences.) A number of postcards bear the cheerful inscription, "Gruss vom Krampus" or "Pozdrav of Certa" ("Greetings from Krampus/the devil") to give the grim proceedings an ironically chipper note.

Some of the postcards that struck me particularly include:

A grinning Krampus turning a set of sad-faced hearts on a spit over a fire. A Valentine's Day card?

The Krampus flying in an airplane above a globe (rather like the old Universal Studios logo) and flinging his birch switches down upon the warring world.

St. Nicholas and the Krampus peering into a bag filled with babies, presumably preparing to sort the nice from the naughty.

A trio of smirking, scantily dressed, and probably very naughty ladies riding on the back of what appears to be a well-to-do gentleman in top hat, monocle, and tails… but with that give-away tongue dangling out.

A little girl bathing the demon in a wooden washtub as if it were her dolly or a pet dog (my personal favorite).

And every time I browse through, I find some new odd or funny card I hadn't noticed before. All in all, it's a fascinating look at a genre of popular postcard art from a century ago, and of a dark side of the Santa-Claus legend that hasn't survived in American customs.

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