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The dark side of Santa Claus

Elgartist John LaFleur holds frame some traditional uses Krampus -- postcard art packaging stickers. | Janelle Walker~For Sun-Times Media

Elgin artist John LaFleur holds a frame of some traditional uses of Krampus -- postcard art and packaging stickers. | Janelle Walker~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 6, 2014 1:04PM

ELGIN — Krampus is coming to town.

For the uninitiated, Krampus is the “bad cop” to Santa Claus’ “good cop,” said Tanner Melvin, co-director of Side Street Studio Arts.

He is often characterized as a devil-like creature: cloven hoofs, horns, chains and a long tongue — making for a scary sight for children and revelers. Krampus also makes for some interesting artistic inspiration.

The downtown Elgin art gallery will celebrate the bad elf and all of his incarnations throughout December during an exhibition titled “Krampuslauf — Elgin, IL.”

The exhibition kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday with an opening and reception, and will run through Dec. 22 at Side Street Studio Arts, 15 Ziegler Court.

Around the world but particularly in Alpine cultures, Krampus is celebrated hand-in-hand with St. Nicholas, said local artist John LaFleur. While U.S. parents are known to warn children that unless they are good, Santa will just bring them a lump of coal for Christmas, Krampus is the warning to bad boys and girls — and adults — of what happens when they are bad.

Krampus doesn’t give them coal but may take naughty children away in a bag or wicker basket. Festivals, parades and art exhibits, too, have grown up around the character, and some of those traditions are coming to Elgin.

LaFleur said he has wanted to bring a Krampuslauf festival to Elgin since right after the first Nightmare on Chicago Street, Elgin’s zombie-themed Elgin festival.

He brought up the idea to Side Street’s directors Melvin, Amanda Harris and Erin Rehberg shortly after the venue opened last spring.

There is a long tradition — particularly in Austria, Germany and Bavaria — of celebrating Krampus, and many American cities have gotten in on the act, too. One of LaFleur’s framed pieces shows how the elf is used in greeting cards and pastry boxes.

Strudel guard

Some bakeries use a decal of Krampus to seal boxes of pastries — maybe a warning of what happens if those sweets are eaten before they are shared.

“Here is your box of strudel, and they keep it closed with a Krampus strip,” LaFleur said. “You don’t see that in America. But in someplace like Germany … it is so ingrained they think nothing of it.”

Another book he owns shows how Krampus has been used and characterized throughout the ages in postcards.

After reaching out to area artists for their Krampus-inspired art, a total of 35 artists have brought works to the studio, Melvin said.

“It is the Brothers Grimm side of Christmas,” LaFleur said.

Americans have shown interest in that dark side, he added, based on our Halloween celebrations and ratings for TV shows such as “Grimm,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Once Upon a Time.”

Krampus had a bigger following in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Melvin added. However, the “Coca-Cola” version of Santa Claus — made popular in the soda’s advertising — pushed characters such as Krampus off to the side.

They want to resurrect and educate people about the darker side of the holiday celebrations — many that have links to a pagan past.

“There is so much artwork throughout the world that is different, with different celebrations and a different look,” Melvin said. “We are trying to stay out of the religious. This is about the artwork and the tradition of everything.”

Some of the art already up for the exhibit comes from Elgin Community College professor Curtis Readel, Melvin said. He had gotten several prints — including woodcut prints and lithographs — through an art exchange program that included Krampus art.

Other pieces were made by local artists just for the monthlong Elgin exhibit, he said.

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