He was covered in dark, full-body fur, horns curling out of his head, rattling his heavy chains at my sweet little boys. The devil.
And I brought my sons straight to him, dressed in their best sweaters, their hair combed with perfect, sharp side-partings, their usually rosy cheeks ashen in terror.
All common sense had left me, apparently.
It was supposed to be a sweet outing with their grandparents, an ode to generations of tradition and heritage. In Czech culture, on December 5, the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas, the holy trinity of St Nicholas, an angel and the devil – known by some as Krampus – walk the streets of cities and villages, visiting children.
St Nicholas – usually with a long beard, a bishop’s mitre and a staff – tells the children they are about to be judged.
If they were good, the angel will give them sweets, traditionally chocolates, nuts and oranges.
If they were bad, the devil will toss them in his sack and carry them to hell. They can avoid the trip, St Nicholas explains, by confessing their sins, enduring a terrifying display of Mr Demon’s growls and chain-rattling, then offering him a song or poem.
Satan, not Santa, is a Czech parent’s best weapon. It’s not the optimistic, American style of child discipline: “Be good or Santa’s not going to put anything under the tree.” In America, the status quo of simply not getting new toys is the punishment.
But a Czech kid messes up and it’s straight to Hades.
Every Czech family’s photo album has the requisite picture of a wide-eyed, screaming child who absolutely lost it when Mom and Dad rolled out the welcome mat for Mephistopheles.
It’s old-school, old-world child-rearing, a stick across the butt rather than a carrot.
But even in the old country, old-world parenting is getting a makeover. Czech parents are beginning to rethink the efficacy of a snarling demon as their Dr Spock. “You can scare the children with whatever you want,” Czech child psychologist Jeronym Klimes told TV Nova.
“But it’s not good to break them so that they cry, become hysterical and feel their lives are actually in danger. You can easily scare some with the sack. For others it is enough to just say ‘boo boo boo’.”
A survey done by the Czech television station found that more than 76pc of parents think injecting a little horror into the holidays and fear into children is acceptable. And creating a safe environment for a child to test their courage – standing before the fiend they believe to be the actual devil and reciting a poem – is empowering, the pro-devil parents say.
But about 23pc of them said the tradition is too scary, and remember being traumatised when they were kids. And anyhow, what kind of parenting is it to teach a kid to be good simply to avoid the devil? Isn’t being a good person for the sake of being good a more humanistic take on morality? Once the child finds out that the devil is actually that sadistic teen Lubomir down the street in blackface, does being good matter anymore?
All the Czech psychiatrists agree on one thing – it’s best to avoid the drunk devils, shockingly common on those nights.
I had my chance to stare down the devil once as a child, when my parents visited their small group of Czech friends in Northern California. They decided it was time for their Americanised brats to get some Krampus in their lives.
So they lined our little chairs up, facing the backyard. The glow of the swimming pool silhouetted the figures as they approached. The angel struggled with the sliding glass door. St Nicholas was glittery. The devil was snarly and slurring. I think he was the cheap-wine kind. I ran behind my mom’s legs and tried to hide in the pantry.
But decades later, when I had kids of my own and my mom found a Czech group in Washington that was holding a Feast of St Nicholas, I was all in. My sons, six and eight at the time, would love this immersion into their culture, I figured. For weeks, we practised the Czech incantations that would deflect the devil. The older boy would sing a little rhyme about a dog and a hunter in the woods. The younger one would say the guardian-angel prayer of my childhood.
Never mind that I had spent much of my parenting life trying to safely navigate my children through our harrowing world.
And yet, here I was, offering them up to the avowed enemy of all humankind throughout millennia: Satan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, Asmodeus, Al-Shaitan – the devil. And I dressed them in cardigans for the occasion.
The Lord of the Underworld lived up to the hype. The angel was glowing and sweet. St Nicholas was out of a storybook. The devil was horrifying.
“Oh, he’s much better than the old one,” one of the Czech moms told me. “The other guy used to drink way too much beer, and he actually put a kid in his sack one year.”
The boys pressed into my mom, who led them to the stage and held their sweaty hands as they sang and spoke into the microphone. Grandma was as glowy as the angel. Her grandsons looked like the kids hiding from the velociraptor in Jurassic Park.
“It wasn’t so bad, was it?” I asked my now-16-year-old last week.
“Mom. He had chains,” he said. “They clinked.”
“But didn’t you know it wasn’t real?” I asked.
“You told us it was the devil,” he said. “We believed you. It was terrifying.”
My 13-year-old joined in. “Mom. That was messed up,” he said.
“But what about that time you went skiing and I warned you about the tough run and how careful you had to be?” I asked.
My younger son had responded to my caution with a deadpan look. “Mom. I met the devil,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Then he pulled his goggles down and whooshed off.
Maybe we can use a little old world. Just a bit.