Krampus for the Holiday Season? (Part One)

3 Dec

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

You better not pout when a different kind of supernatural force comes to town this holiday season. Some revellers may well encounter the Christmas Devil–aka Krampus! This name is a derivation of the Germanic word krampen (claw) and some may say he’s as old as time. This creature has changed over the years. In the old days of Germany, before the coming of Christianity, children feared the wild and woolly horned beast. Any child known to be misbehaving was whipped with a birch stick (or a swath of) by this monster. Some were even taken away to the underworld never to be seen again. The lucky who were “released” most likely promised to mend their ways.

In later years, he was known to visit villages with Saint Nicholas on Krampus Night (Krampusnacht; Dec 5th)! The good were rewarded by his friend and the bad found sticks of birch left in their shoe (it was a tradition to leave it out on this night). These days, a chance encounter from someone cosplaying as him doesn’t always provoke the same response.

This entity is not likely to enjoy how his role is misappropriated since being introduced in America. By recognizing his existence, people should consider the meaning of the holidays. A reason must exist to explain his existence.

The Catholic Church put chains on this demon’s influence during the Middle Ages. They believed Krampus was the devil; his appearance may well have influenced Christianity’s depiction of the devil too. As they set up shop in the new world, their desire to destroy the past–the pagan traditions of many a world–was more of a setback than anything else. Without the help of folklorists, librarians, anthropologists and postcard collectors, knowledge of this being–and many other pre-Christian theologies–could have been wiped from history. Fortunately, there have been brave souls who sought to preserve the memory of this ancient world and the fantastic beasts said to roam the lands.

Even the fascists of World War II got into the act. They thought Krampus was a creation of the Social Democrats and did what they could to stop his legacy. Had either group done some research, they would have learned of this alpine beast’s possible Nordic origins. Some people believed he was the Hel’s (Norse goddess of the Underworld) son. But there are no substantial tales to affirm this fact. Despite this anti-hero sharing DNA with satyrs and fauns, none of these ideas stuck.

In modern festivals, the folks dressed as Krampus swat randomly at adults and kids! Victims can laugh and run away, but perhaps they should ask why they were targeted. Birch is often used in religious purification rituals. In this case, perhaps they are also divination rods. In the right hands, they can point to people hiding shameful secrets.

According to MentalFloss, in the state of Styria in Austria, a variant includes stories of families hanging gold painted birch sticks in their home year round. The belief is that the kids will be reminded of their time doing penance. The assumption is that they had a previous encounter with Krampus. This realm (often referred to as Hell) can’t keep up with punishing every resident 24/7 and keeping them fed. Even devils need a rest.

The way Krampus has been ingrained into modern pop culture is problematic. The commercialization of his industry is like how the season sells Christmas. Valentina Jovanovski’s report on the Christian Science Reporter shows the issue is ongoing. Nobody is willing to stop selling tourist trap goods since it helps the local economy.

It’s possible to blame Monte Beauchamp. publisher of the magazine Blab! (1988–2007) for all these problems, but without him, Krampus might have become just another figure from folklore. He didn’t even know about this creature until a collector showed him old Austrian post and holiday cards (see above). Although he printed an image or two in his publication, world-wide interest didn’t take place until after he published The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards (Amazon Link) in 2003. He’s not a cryptozoological creature and some artists decided to portray Krampus as a lady! If a real brute exists in the Alpine regions of Germany, plenty of Bigfoot hunters will seek him out.

Instead, people can’t hide from what he represents. He’s an omniscient force of nature. In an interview with Punk Globe, Beauchamp said, “One thing I’d like to make clear is that Krampus is not evil… he’s not a devil… he’s a character of good heart and looks the way he does to convince the bad into becoming good.”

Humans who revere him will do more than put on a costume. According to Jennifer Billock on Smithsonianmag.com “Young men in town dress up as the mystical creature and parade through the streets in an ancient pagan ritual meant to disperse winter’s ghosts.

“This tradition—also known as the Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run—is having a resurgence throughout Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and has gained recognition in the United States.”

Artist António Carneiro also has a theory. Although the issue of National Geographic magazine with the article about revitalized pagan traditions is not identified, Tanya Basu used his quote and said, “Such impulses may be about assuming ‘a dual personality,’” The theory stems from literary interpretation. Becoming Krampus does not mean an individual can become judge, jury, and executioner.

Anyone jabbed by this wrong end of a stick held by Krampus may chuckle, but perhaps it’s wiser to reflect any misdeeds enacted in the past. Can that person find redemption? Or should he or she consider ways to improve for the better?

This horned creature’s raison d’être is not about the immigrants recounting their legends and lore for a new generation to discover. Nor is Krampus about the counterculture as he is now known for. He’s been featured in many comic books or films since becoming mainstream. He’s the catalyst for action, which is–ironically–good; He provokes victim to become aware of his or her past sins. The best tales which include this beast reflect this fact. Mass media created this modern Krampus and he’s only sinister as the author wants him to be, not the other way around.

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