There's much more to Christmas than the relatively modern set of customs that get trotted out every year: Santa Claus, presents under the tree, stockings hung with care. What about Krampus, a centuries-old pagan character rooted in Norse mythology? Yeah, hey, what about him? According to folklore, the horned, goat-footed devil was partnered with jolly old Saint Nick in the 17th century by Christians as part of the Feast of St. Nicholas, their winter celebration. Scaring children into being nice by whipping them with chains and even hauling them off to his lair to be tortured and eaten, the original bad Santa arrives every Krampusnacht, or Krampus night, traditionally held on December 5.
The beast's name comes from the German word krampen, meaning claw, and shares characteristics with demonic creatures in Greek mythology like fauns and satyrs. Due to his devilish appearance, Krampus celebrations were banned by the Catholic Church in the 12th century. Even fascists in World War II allegedly found fault with Krampus because they considered him a creation of the Social Democrats. A more modern take on the tradition has taken hold in the US and Europe where inebriated men dress up in devilish costumes and gallivant though the streets for Krampuslauf (Krampus run), a 1,500 year-old pagan ritual to chase off the ghosts of winter. (Sorta like Santacon—which actually has some spiritual ties to Krampus in the distant past.)
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, a book by Al Ridenour out now from Feral House, explores the legend of the mythical bogeyman that has inspired a Hollywood movie, a comic book, and holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten that feature images of the horned demon frightening and beating naughty children into tears. These cards often come with slogans like "Gruss vom Krampus" (greetings from krampus) or "Brav Sein" (be good). I recently spoke with the 55-year-old Ridenour, a veteran freelance writer, to find out about the legend of Krampus and how, "You better watch out, you better not cry / Better not pout, I'm telling you why" takes on a whole new meaning with this dude.
VICE: Why do you think Krampus has had this resurgence in popular culture?
Al Ridenour: The pattern is different in Europe, but in America, it would be the punk aesthetic and the sort of impudent internet culture of memes. Ever since the 1960s, the counterculture's looked for some way to respond to the holidays. In those days, neo-pagans began celebrating the customs of Yule, and by the 1970s, you began seeing an even more nihilistic response with Christmas slasher films like Black Christmas or Christmas Evil. All of this was a rebellion against the parental generation, the Normal Rockwell Christmas, and the Coca-Cola Santa.
As the punk aesthetic of the 1980s moved into the 1990s, it was giving birth to things like Santacon, those mobs of drunken Santas that take over dozens of cities each year. Nowadays, that event's just a sort of amorphous pub crawl, but I was an organizer with the group that created that event, the Cacophony Society, and in its original form, Santacon was more pointedly and theatrically satiric. Its mission was to skewer the American holiday by making a degrading display of its chief icon.
When images of the Krampus began circulating on the internet in the mid 2000s, that really set fire to it all. Those of us who came up in the punk milieu recognized the Krampus as the new savior of Christmas. We'd grown up chafing against this ideal of Christmas a sentimental domestic idyll of family values and childhood wonder, and here we had this shocking figure who celebrated the holiday by beating children! He seemed to perfectly embody the rebellion we felt. Then, if you started actually looking into the figure, got beyond those images of whips and chains and frightened children, if did a little reading, you'd realize the Krampus also fit in with that 1960s countercultural desire to embrace the holiday's pagan roots.
How did you find out about the legend of Krampus, and what made you want to write a book about it?
My grandparents were German, and I ended up getting a BA in German studies. After college, I lived for a year in Berlin, which is far north of Krampus country, but there were still these beautiful old devil postcards that would show up around Christmas. I was attracted to them and bought one, not really knowing what it was. However, at the time, I was also doing some pretty serious reading of my own in mythology and folklore. I eventually figured it out and became obsessed with the subject.
In 2012, I finally had the opportunity to go to southern Germany and Austria to see Krampus runs for myself. I ended up doing some pretty serious study of the topic just to plan my trip. That was the beginning of research for my book. At the same time, my involvement with the Cacophony Society fed the interest. This group had also engaged in forms of unruly street theater in ways paralleling the more traditional less municipally controlled Krampus runs. People I knew from that group also become interested in the Krampus, and in 2013, we formed a troupe in LA.
Making costumes and masks for that, as well as translating a 19th-century Krampus play we now produce annually, all fed into my research for the book. Other than that, I did a lot of online interviews after returning from Europe and ended up meeting an Austrian anthropologist who happened to be working at UCLA, Matthäus Rest, who also wrote a book on the subject, sadly only available in German. He helped greatly with the research.
At one time, in Europe, Krampus was a regular holiday tradition that involved all kinds of dark characters and sequences of events related to witchcraft. Can you explain all that?
The season was once much more comparable to Halloween. And it was not just the Krampus, but many other costumed figures that visited homes in the night. Like Halloween, the season was considered a time when the veil between the worlds was lifted and was associated with a complex mythology of ghosts, witchcraft, and other supernatural beings. A good part of my book is about a whole network of traditions associated with the Krampus that I lump under the subtitle the "Old, Dark Christmas."
The only taste Americans get of this is in Dickens's ghost story, but this is only the tip of a long-submerged iceberg. Dickens himself wrote a number of ghost stories set at Christmas, and the British have revived this tradition with annual BBC showings of "A Ghost Story for Christmas." In contemporary Germany and Austria, the Krampus may appear on the days around St. Nicholas Eve, but from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6), there are hundreds of other costumed events featuring a similar creature called the Percht, as well as other events that use storytelling and costumes to celebrate the haunted Twelve Nights [of Krampus].
"He was said not only to beat children but to eat them, tear them apart, throw them in frozen lakes, or drag them down to hell... But he was not a rogue force of evil."
Why do you think the Krampus legend grew in Germany and how mainstream was the belief?
It was not a belief, really. Not unless you were, say, seven years old or younger. It was more of playful bit of folk theater [that] parents staged for everyone's entertainment and the improvement of children's behavior. As for the German question, I get this a lot and always get the feeling that behind it there's some notion of national character tainted by American's inability to think of Germans without thinking of Nazis. It wasn't a tradition of the German nation as a whole—it was a tradition of the German south, Bavaria, and Austria.
The more martial culture of northern Germany, the Prussian-dominated culture that gave Germany a reputation for hardness, and eventually paved the way for the militarism of the Third Reich, was not associated with the tradition. The fact that the bogeyman used to frighten children has been ubiquitous, and parenting in the 19th century—when the tradition as we know it was consolidated—was strict and employed threats and corporal punishment throughout Europe, not just in Germany and Austria.
Could you talk about Krampus's demise by World War II?
This is one of those facts that made it onto the English-language Wikipedia, which seems to be given undue importance. It's true that Krampus runs were curtailed during the war, but the same could be said for other public entertainments during times of scarcity. There was not an ideological opposition to Krampus activities, and indeed the Third Reich was very supportive of various expressions of the German folk culture. But any large gathering of people during unstable times always presents a possible outlet for expressions of political unrest and riot. That's more the reason they were suppressed. On the other hand, it was during the 1930s and 1940s, that a renaissance in the art of Krampus mask carving took place. The masks we think of as traditional today date to that period.
So how wicked was this original bad Santa?
His punishment of naughty children was described in pretty brutal terms. He was said not only to beat children but to eat them, tear them apart, throw them in frozen lakes, or drag them down to hell. However, I always like to stay away from the "bad Santa" analogy, because despite all this cruelty, you have to remember, the Krampus was understood as a servant of St. Nicholas, an enforcer of good behavior. He may take delight in his duties as a punisher, but he was not a rogue force of evil. He was traditionally depicted in chains to remind us that he was subjugated to St. Nicholas and the church's notion of a just cosmos.
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