It’s the most horrifying time of the year. Let Devan explain just why that is.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, again, a time when we look back and reflect on all that’s happened over the last three hundred some odd days while stuffing our faces with delicious seasonal treats and fattening, overpriced beverages. It’s a time when the economy gets a special push from the abject commercialism that’s embedded itself so deeply into the holiday it can’t be extricated without killing the host, a horror in and of itself if you happen to find yourself under the heel of class warfare. With sanitized versions of holiday classics featuring magical singing snow men and talking toys working overtime to save the spirit of Christmas (don’t even get me started on the urban reboot of Annie) you may think that there is nothing dark and sinister about the Yule season anymore.
Allow me to disabuse you of that notion right now, by introducing you to Krampus the Christmas demon.
Krampus, whose name comes from the German word krampen, meaning claw, has huge horns on the top of his head, the kind that put the ones on Ignatius Perrish’s head in the Joe Hill tale Horns to shame. He is covered in dark tufts of wooly untamed fur, and comes equipped with an intimidating set of fangs perfect for ripping into soft human flesh. The mythical beast is said to be the offspring of Hel in Norse mythology and shares distinctive traits with other terrifying, hell spawn in Greek stories, including his distant cousins fauns and satyrs, but this is no flute playing alcoholic pervert like Pan. This is a hell beast who lives to torment bad kids, and eat them. What’s more Krampus comes with clanging chains and bells to let you know your unavoidable doom is in fact coming, a bundle of birch sticks to whip naughty children with, and a burlap sack to carry off the worst of the worst to the depths of the underworld where he will feast on their bones and relish in their tortured screams. So where exactly did this awesome monster come from?
The birth of Krampus dates back centuries to Europe and has more twists and turns and permutations than a Gillian Flynn novel. The demons story begins way back with a 4th century Bishop named Saint Nicholas. Sound familiar? Legend has it that Saint Nick was a generous man who would wander the streets at Christmas time, starting in early December, tossing gold coins into the windows of the poorest houses in town. Over the next thousand years the legend of the jolly Saint Nick evolved, imbued with both elaborations, embellishments, flights of fancy, and a last but not least a healthy dash of pagan storytelling, which seemed to find its way into the best tales and legends like a worm digging into the delicate flesh of a fresh corpse. This fertile soil gave rise to the horned fiend, serving as a welcome demonic counterpart to Santa’s generosity and kindness and allowing him to be all good and pure while someone else did the dirty work.
By the time of the Renaissance the seasonal holiday celebration of Christmas had evolved to include not just Santa Claus but the demon Krampus who was by then declared the evil twin of the beloved saint, and a willing partner in the holiday festivities. For generations parents in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia would frighten gullible children into behaving with lurid tales of the fierce and merciless winter savage. Good children who did what their parents wanted them to could expect to be rewarded with toys and treats come Christmas day. Bad kids on the other hand were in for a visit from the animal from the bowels of hell. For these rotten rule breakers and unrepentant instigators of chaos and backtalk a whipping was the best they could hope for.
It was the basket Krampus bore on his back they wanted to avoid at all costs, since being placed in it, or in the burlap sack, meant a one way ticket to eternal damnation and ghastly horror not even your parents could redeem you from. These days the sound of jingling bells is meant to signal the arrival of the jolly fat man in a red suit giving gifts, but back then such a sound would induce dread and panic, not joy and happiness, since it meant the demon was coming for you. And no one in their right mind would be singing about what fun it was to be “dragged off by a one horned monster to be slayed” if you catch my drift. I can only imagine the fun parents must have had playing tricks on unruly children back then by rattling chains near their doors and growling like wolves. Good times.
Fast forward once more to the late 1800s and the invention of color printing. It was around this time that Krampus cards came into fashion, accelerating the spread of the demon and taking him viral. German speaking people from all over the world began sending their friends and their kids post cards with a picture of Krampus on the front. Nearly all of them bore the ominous phrase “Gruss Von Krampus”, or in English, Greetings from Krampus! Artists began making money by crafting alluringly morbid images of the creature abducting and tormenting wicked children and the practice flourished and spread around the globe. The message was clear – be good or Santa’s scary brother would be paying you a visit on Christmas day. Makes a lump of coal in the stocking pale in comparison. But Krampus was far from being done. In fact, he was just getting started.
Around the start of the 20th century, just prior to the outbreak of World War I, the Christmas devil became politicized. The Fascists rose to power in the 1930’s and popular holiday parties, called Krampus Balls, as well as any image of Krampus in Austria and Germany, became expressly forbidden by the regime. Considered a creation of the Social Democrats, the Fascists found the demon despicable and worried about the message he was spreading. The Catholic Church did its part as well to kill the fun, forbidding the often raucous holiday celebrations that worshiped a horned beast not unlike the devil himself as far as they were concerned. Still Krampus survived, retreating to depths of the dark hot hell he’d crawled out of and being exchanged between families in secret and whispered about like forbidden old witch spells. The legend of Krampus would not be extinguished so easily.
Immediately after the war, Krampus took his revenge on being suppressed, taking more interest in the naughty mothers of children than the bad kids themselves. Women were warned that lasciviousness, promiscuity, and infidelity would be just causes for the hell beast to punish them like children, again with the worst offenders being tortured and eaten alive. Krampus cards were passed around once more, this time showing sultry harlots being punished by the hairy monster in sadomasochistic and cannibalistic ways that bordered on pornography. It is perhaps because of these images that by the end of World War II Krampus had fully made his return to Europe. Since then he seems to have become more popular than ever. Krampus cards are starting to make the rounds again as well.
The next generation in Eastern Europe is putting a more modern take on the age old tradition handed down to them. Each year on December 5th drunken young men in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic dress up in imitation of mighty Krampus before taking over the streets for a Krampuslauf-or Krampus Run – where people are chased through the streets by the “devils.” At the end of the parade jolly ole Saint Nick himself makes an appearance, putting his beloved monsters back under his control before handing out presents to the good boys and girls in the crowd. These celebrations have seen swollen crowds of miscreants and revelers in the last few decades, not unlike zombie walks here in the United States or Santa Con.
And why not? It’s not just about scaring kids into behaving. It’s about embracing our animal nature, returning to pagan traditions, and incorporating the fun of horror back into our lives. This year, instead of throwing another “clever” and “ironic” ugly sweater party why not let the demon out instead and host an event for all the people you know and love on the naughty list complete with chips, dips, chains, and whips? Just remember, if you hear the sound of chains and bells jingling outside in the snow just remember that it might not be Santa Claus after all.
Happy Holidays and stay scared!