The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas
Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil
Sometime at the start of this decade, Americans started to take an interest in Krampus—a shaggy, horned demon who punishes and occasionally eats wicked children at the command of St. Nicholas. Websites, TV shows, comic books, a major motion picture, not to mention several live events around the country, have brought this dark figure out of shadows of the Alps and into America’s popular consciousness.
For the uninitiated, Krampus may seem an odd fit for Christmastime. Clad in fur, heavy chains, and noisy cowbells, troops of Krampusse (the correct plural of Krampus) run through alpine villages on St. Nicholas Day (December 5). Traditionally, Saint Nicholas would lead these krampuslaufs (“Krampus runs”) to visit farmsteads and check on the behavior of children. Well-behaved children who could adequately recite their prayers on command would receive small gifts from the stern saint; those who were not and could not would receive a beating with Krampus’s switch.
Something about this dark figure resonates with people today, leading to a revival of events that just a generation ago were unkindly viewed as rustic provincialisms in Austria, and to their adoption and adaptation by American urbanites. Al Ridenour— a freelance writer, artist, and co-founder of Krampus Los Angeles— has written a wonderful book documenting the larger world of the Krampus, the tradition’s historical development, and its religious and folkloric roots. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil does an admirable job of describing both traditional and modern iterations of the krampuslauf, as well as of cataloging regional variations of the figure and their associated rituals. In searching for Krampus’s origins and trying to account for his current resurgence, Ridenour weaves together a wide variety of materials that reach well beyond the traditional krampuslauf connecting the figure to fertility rites, tales of ghostly apparitions, and medieval morality plays.
Ridenour advances several important claims as part of his review of this folkloric material. His first point is that the Krampus, though perhaps the most well-known of these figures, is just one part of a larger set of myths and rituals that extend over much of western and central Europe. The book introduces readers to a variety of witches, goblins, and haunts, all of whom have a habit of visiting the living for both benevolent and malevolent ends. In fact, much of the latter half of the book is devoted to the figures of Frau Perchta— a witch associated with domesticity and fertility— and a category of spirits called Perchten, who both resemble Krampus and differ from him in key ways. Like Krampus, these figures both mete out punishment to the wicked and reward the virtuous; they also have a habit of incarnating as costumed people in villages squares and at people’s homes.
The second closely related point is that the holiday season has traditionally been regarded as a “haunted season” tinged by supernatural elements far more menacing that flying reindeers and jolly old gift-giving elves. Ridenour shrewdly points out that the merry twelve days of Christmas may also be experienced as twelve uneasy nights of winter. It is during those cold winter nights between St. Martin’s Day in mid-November and the Feast of the Epiphany in early January that the Krampus and his ilk are most likely to come knocking on your door. Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghostly visitations don’t seem so out of place in light of this vision of European Christmastime, in which a stern St. Nicholas watches on as his monstrous minions terrorize wicked children who don’t know their catechisms by heart.
This darker vision of the holidays, however, is not a survival from a dimly remembered pagan past, Ridenour argues, but rather something that developed well after Christianity became part of the cultural landscape of the region. St. Nicholas is the krampusse’s guardian, not because Christianity co-opted the horned beast, but because they developed alongside each other in a shared cultural milieu. Students of cultural history and folklore will recognize familiar debates about whether the ancient roots of traditions are now under siege from modernity, or whether historical evidence shows that not only do traditions regularly change, but also that their origins are more recent than is often imagined.
Finally, in explaining how Krampus might have first arisen, and why he is experiencing a revival, Ridenour highlights the aspects of fun and play involved in the costumed krampuslauf. Terror may be the primary mood that the Krampus evokes, but one can’t ignore the ludic quality that underscores his visits. Explanations about the rituals that highlight their magical elements, he says, tend to occlude the very real fun that participants derive from dressing up and running amok. The point of a Krampus troop’s visit to a farmstead is never to actually harm children, but rather, to enact a sort of morality play that both edifies and entertains. The fear that Krampus may engender is done in the context of play, and krampuslaufs tend to be raucous and carnivalesque affairs featuring plenty of drinking, flirting, and general carousing. This is a good reminder that rituals need not be solemn affairs, and that the pleasure they generate for participants is as important a motivator for participation as any other. We can see this focus on fun in the adoption of krampuslaufs in the US; Ridenour might have written more about his own troupe’s experiences producing krampuslauf in Los Angeles, to further illuminate the contemporary appeal of Krampus.
This book is based on solid research using multiple methods (including participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, and historical analysis). However, those looking for a rigorous academic treatment of the subject might come away a bit disappointed. Ridenour’s text is comprehensive, and he commendably introduces us to many myths and practices, but the trade-off is that it is easy to get lost in all the details while missing the overarching narrative and framework. Though clear themes emerge from the work, one wishes that the author had included a bit more of a sustained critical reflection on them, and offered more analysis of his subject matter. Finally, the text makes ample reference to scholarly works, but the volume does not include a bibliography that would easily allow someone to follow the many tantalizing leads Ridenour suggests. (The inside cover promises that a bibliography and other supplemental materials can be found at http://krampuslosangeles.com/book, but I did not find them there as of December 1, 2016.)
Ridenour’s comprehensive and straightforward style is also the volume’s strength. Novices to Krampus will find the text is accessible and learn a great deal from it. Aspiring krampusse will find ample inspiration for new costumes and events. Scholars of religion will find that there is enough here to spark new questions, too. As I read through descriptions of Austrian krampuslaufs and St. Nichlolas plays, I saw parallels with similar practices in other parts of the world, such as Bolvian diabladas, the Guatemalan quema del diablo (a burning of devil images which is also held in early December), and Balinese Barong dances, to name but a few. Thinking about these geographically disparate practices in comparison might help us to better understand the appeal of these kinds of ritualized actions.
In sum, this book is a worthy addition to the elf-less shelf of anyone interested in Krampus, the history of holidays, and European folklore in general. The beautiful full-color photographs alone make it well worth purchasing, and diving into Ridenour’s book next to a crackling fire and availed of warming beverages seems like a perfect way to pass a haunted winter night.
Eric Hoenes del Pinal is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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