In 2015, National Geographic declared “If you haven’t heard of Krampus, the demon-like half-goat of Austrian folklore, then you haven’t been paying attention”, the year the movie of the same name was released.
2016 brought the lower budget Krampus Unleashed, which ,while I will freely admit to passing on, got a fair review from Geeks Of Doom. For my money, it’s old news. Chef Anthony Bourdain nailed it in under 5 minutes when he released A Krampus Carol in 2011.
If this shaggy, horned, and horrific character with its tongue lolling out while carrying crying children stuffed in a woven backpack to be dumped in the nearest river is part of the mainstream holiday lexicon these days, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on how, and why, that happened.
The krampus ( krampii?) is a supernatural creature species, not one character’s name. Hordes of the beasts roam the streets in traditional parades over the Bavarian Christmas season. While their main activity seems to be punishing unruly children, they are related to satyrs, and ultimately to the Pan figure, a flute playing, mischievous half animal, half god, and to Herne the Hunter, a horned god of the wild and the hunt, among scores of other ancient horned god/wild god archetypes.
The name Krampus comes from the German word krampen, meaning claw. In movies, Krampus tends to be portrayed as a single character, a sort of anti-Clause. In the creatures homeland however, the context is much deeper. Al Ridenour, author of The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, says in regions of Austria they are not just a scary creature used to encourage good behavior in kids, but “a culture.”
“Krampus Runs” are more now an adult thing, men getting drunk and running about dressed as beasts with arcane symbolic items like switches and chains, but Krampusnacht on December 5th and the following Nikolaustag on the 6th were once family festivals.
Good children were rewarded with small gifts from St. Nicolas, and bad children were, depending on the era and region, punished with anything from having to eat boiled leather while parents mocked them, to a cold river dunking.
St. Nicolas, an older more dour figure who informed the Santa myth, is officially the boss of the krampus, but in reality the beasts seem to do what they please. St. Nicolas represents order and light, the krampus chaos and darkness. These festivities descend from older pagan celebrations which occurred on the winter solstice. On the night of the krampus, darkness prevailed, and the next day the light began to regain strength.
The primeval beast became a more focal part of early December celebrations in the centuries after Catholicism had replaced the native pagan religion and the St. Nicolas character became the sole focus of the solstice rituals, now Christmas. It had driven one half of the cycle of the earth, the day and our psyches, the darker elements of the seasonal drama, to regional parades and rituals held , as they are today, on the 5th and 6th.
All this ran pretty much as usual (if child stealing, slobbering , freakish beasts can be seen as ‘usual’), till the 1890s , when the Austrian government gave up control of the nation’s postcard production and the industry subsequently boomed.
Early commercialization of the image was greeted with interest by the international public, and by 1904 the Krampus character was being marketed successfully to adults as kitsch.
So the free market chose the krampus. It’s not a piece of stuffy folklore an academic department is actively trying to revive; it came to popular consciousness because, for some reason, people actually like horrific beasts who deliberately terrify children, and worse. What gives?
The solstice has been celebrated far back into antiquity for some serious reasons. It’s a liminal time, where darkness is at its peak and, for a people who had a very different understanding of the natural world and their place in it then we do, it was a dangerous time, when the sun’s survival seemed imperiled. Rituals needed to be held to ensure the return of the light, that the sun not be swallowed by chaotic forces.
This is more true the more north one goes, and thus it is no surprise that the most vivid articulations of this cosmic combat come from Northern regions like Bavaria. As our modern holiday season has become sterilized and commercialized, I postulate that the rise of the Krampus is a response to a loss of the wild, the chaotic, the unbowed, not just in seasonal celebrations, but in society at large, and, perhaps, in ourselves.
Be wild. Keep Krampus in Christmas, even if it’s as simple as getting a real tree rather than a fake one. Take time to remember, in our festival of shimmering lights, what our ancestors knew more presciently: the triumph of the dark is a real threat if not actively combated. Oh, and also, it’s good for the soul to roam the streets drunk in furs in December.