Along with the date, I write the number of days until Christmas on the whiteboard each morning. The Year 7 tutees think that time has begun to move very slowly. There is still a sense of the magical in the hearts of most of them.
On Friday, it was Saint Nicholas’ Day, we talked about the traditions in Germany and Holland and the origins of Santa Claus. There was an enthusiastic engagement in the conversation and one boy raised his hand, “Sir, what about Krampus?”
The name of Krampus should have been instantly recognisable, one of my ski instructors would dress as the beastly figure in the village in which he lived, I had to ask for time, though, and refresh my memory before the tutor time after lunch. When we reassembled, I showed the class a video clip of various Krampuses and Saint Nicholases processing around villages in Austria. The figure of Krampus must scare some younger children for it certainly unsettled some of the Year 7 students who sought reassurance that he didn’t really take away naughty children.
It was odd how worldly-wise eleven and twelve year olds could suddenly be absorbed by a tradition that I assume is deeply rooted in a pagan past. A couple students were indignant that being judged to have been naughty could result in abduction. “It is only a story,” I said. “There is no truth in it.” Perhaps the idea that Krampus might really exist was tied to the lingering idea to which some of them still cling that Santa Claus really exists.
Perhaps the most interesting dimension of the conversations was the capacity some of them demonstrated for the willing suspension of disbelief. Whatever their rational minds told them, whatever their faculty for critical thinking suggested, there was still a place in their thinking for the non-rational, for believing in phenomena that were inexplicable in human terms.
There was something strangely encouraging, uplifting even, in the discussion of Saint Nicholas and Krampus. It showed that there was a cohort of younger people for whom the material world did not offer all the answers. The traditions of 6th December may be a piece of folk nonsense, they may be entirely without logical basis and owe their existence to superstition, but the interest they evoked spoke of a feeling of a need to still believe in the magical, to still believe in things adults ignore.