St. Nikolaus, Krampus, and Black Santa


imagesIndiana University’s Community Education Program recently tried to start a conversation about race and identity by asking students, “Can Santa Claus be a Black Man?”  It didn’t go over so well…  There are any number of ways to celebrate Christmas, and to recognize the tradition of gift-giving, but let’s not conflate capitalist traditions with recognized Saints. 

The Indiana Daily Student also reported on this event, and as with the coverage at Fox News, the narrative was the same at both outlets.  It was apparently more important to tell people about how mean and insensitive it was to strike up a conversation about race and identity than to talk about the history of Santa Claus and the European folk traditions which are associated with him.       

Indiana Daily Student opinion writer Andrea Zimmerman holds an interesting position on this recent bulletin board debacle.

“As a public education institution, IU has a responsibility not only to make every race a part of its culture, but to also expand the student body’s notions on what race truly is — not to further disseminate ignorance.”

Zimmerman has been invited to respond to this article so that we can continue the conversation, because we’re not preventing the spread of ignorance by removing a bulletin board display.

The modern tradition of Christmas has become significantly less than the celebration of Christ’s birth.  Instead, we are “buying into” the capitalist and consumerist schemes of cheap Chinese goods and the death of the American manufacturing industry.  Santa Claus has come to represent a capitalist and consumerist lifestyle, so it doesn’t really matter if he is black.  If the black community wants to have a Black Santa, it doesn’t really change anything.  To me, it’s a non-issue whether or not Santa Claus is black or white.  Whichever color he is, modern Santa Claus is the god of degenerate consumer lifestyles and capitalist spending binges.

December 6th was the Feast Day for Saint Nikolaus, and this Saint was recognized for his history of gift-giving and wonder-working.  Saint Nikolaus is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students.  Saint Nikolaus is where the idea and tradition of Santa Claus came from, and it is also where we found the idea of gift-giving as a way to mark the holidays.

I enjoy giving and receiving gifts as much as the next person does, but let’s not get carried away with ourselves.  Santa Claus was inspired by the history of Saint Nikolaus, so let’s not make Christmas about lavishly spending money on friends, family, and ourselves.  We should be giving gifts in the spirit of goodwill and generosity, not in the bourgeois spirit of material consumerism and greed.

As I said, if the black community wants a Black Santa, that’s their business.  But, they shouldn’t be surprised if they’re visited by Saint Nikolaus’ horde of Krampus minions, and punished for their transgressions.  In the European tradition, Krampus is the benevolent (and frequently mischievous) minion which follows Saint Nikolaus.  Krampus is singularly responsible for meting justice and punishment to misbehaving children.  In extreme cases, Krampus is said to carry away bad children upon his back.

Most Americans have not heard of the Krampus Celebrations, and until recently you would be hard pressed to find one outside of Europe.  However, if you’re in the Bloomington, Indiana area on December 7th, you can bring the whole family out for an authentic Krampus Celebration.  The Bloomington, Indiana based Krampus Night gives a fairly straight forward description of what the celebration involves.

“As early as the 17th century, in Alpine Europe, nice children have been rewarded with gifts from St. Nicholas during this holiday season. But, naughty children are punished by his feisty companions, the Krampus!

Tall, hairy beasts with long wild horns and huge claws, the Krampus scare children into behaving. They walk menacingly, rattle rusty chains and ring loud bells, to announce their approach. Herding them is Saint Nicholas in his white bishop gowns and carrying a thick book of names.

The Krampus love to frighten bad children. Some take back the presents St. Nicholas has given, leaving a lump of coal instead. Some swat at naughty children with a switch, while other Krampus reach out and touch their faces, leaving an ashen mark that attracts bad dreams. The ‘Krampus can even carry off very bad children in a sack!'”

The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards by Monte Buchamp represents the most complete collection of original Krampus postcards ever printed.  This coffee table tome explains that our contemporary identification of Santa Claus is actually a very recent occurrence.

“In the closing month of 1823, an anonymous poem entitled ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ appeared in the pages of New York’s Troy Sentinel.  Later attributed to Clement C. Moore, the verse had been penned merely as a gift to his children the previous year.  Patterned largely on Washington Irving’s rendition of the good saint, its seasonal reprinting established the character as a rotund, pipe-smoking elf, who stuffs mantled stockings full of candy and gifts, scurries up chimneys, and pilots away in a sleigh whilst bellowing, ‘Merry Christmas to all and to all a good-night.’

Four decades later — during the Civil War — German-born political cartoonist Thomas Nast carried Moore’s portrayal further with his double-page, steel-engraved etching entitled ‘Santa Claus and His Works’ in Harper’s Weekly.

From that point onward, the jollification of St. Nicholas in America snowballed, solidifying into the cheerful Christmas icon we know today.  All mention of this discipline-dispensing companions was long ago erased.  Yet in parts of Europe, the original Nikolaus remains … rewarding the good; punishing the bad … instilling in kids early on the notion that rude and unruly behavior oftentimes results in a grave retaliation.”

Krampus, the minion of Saint Nikolaus, reminds us that the material gifts we receive in life can just as easily be taken away as punishment for transgressions and misbehavior.  This is the importance of having celebrations which are culturally specific, or that carry values which are intrinsic to a people and a culture.  If the black community wants a Black Santa, let them have one which teaches the timeless values of Tradition– or the Krampus may come for them.

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St. Nikolaus, Krampus, and Black Santa by Thomas Buhls is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.




  • Robert Pinkerton

    My commiseration to you: Christmas, one of your principal holidays (Yes, I remember that the term is descended from “holy day.”) has been co-opted and schlocked up with so much irrelevant commercialism. The same happened to our* principal holiday, Hallows; To us, it is the day we honor those we loved, who are no longer carnate in the incarnation in which we knew them; it has minimally, if anything to do with children begging in costume.

    (*”Our”? I am an old believer; you Abrahamics [the genus which takes in the species Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] call us pagans or heathens.)

    • Tom

      Whether or not we agree with each other on lifestyle choices is a non-issue for me. I’ve tried to articulate an opposition to commercial influences on the winter Holidays, including a rejection of capitalism, and consumerism.

      Thanks for reading.


By: Thomas Buhls



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