Hello everyone! The Void of Celluloid is back better and scarier than ever. It’s also now the time to celebrate Christmas and all the joy that surrounds it. That does not mean that we still can’t get our scare on, and in the folklore of the culture that made Christmas extravagant lies quite a weird, scary traditional creature. I had the pleasure to live in Austria a couple years ago, so I got to experience my first encounters with these beasts. However, I want to spread the word on this fantastically chaotic tradition and share how you can get involved.
As you guessed, the creature’s name is Krampus. Krampus however is a bit more complex than just being the antithesis to Santa Claus, so therefore, we’re going to go into the Germanic tradition and explore the lore, the celebration and the modern day interpretations that have crossed over into the U.S.. Let’s just say, we could do with some Krampus in our lives.
The Folklore of Krampus
Krampus’ origin is located in Central Europe, specifically Germany, the homeland of all Christmas traditions. We got the Christmas tree, the Christmas markets and the foundation for gingerbread (known as Lebkuechen). Krampus comes from the German word “Krampen” which means ‘claw’ in German. It is believed that Krampus is half-goat and half-demon. His roots are in pagan traditions that surround the winter solstice, and he slowly leaked his way into Christian traditions as the partner of St. Nicholas.
That’s right, he’s not the opposite of St. Nick, he is his business partner. The story goes as we all know it: get on the good list, you get presents; get on the bad list, however, does not lead to a lump of coal for central European children. Instead, Krampus will come for you and beat you with sticks for being naughty. American children, consider yourself lucky.
In a way of demonizing Krampus further, it was the Catholic Church that spread that Krampus will drag children to hell in an attempt to ban Krampus from his holiday portrayal. Ban attempts not only included the Catholic Church, but also the Nazis during World War II and the Austrian government. However, every year he managed to come back due to popular demand. Parents would dress as Krampus to scare their children into behaving, he popped up on postcards much like the one pictured above and Krampus solidified his status as a Christmas classic.
Forced resettlement after World War II affected the culture, as many families were broken apart by the division of Germany. East Germany had to deal with the secularization of Christmas, as religion was frowned upon in USSR occupied areas, which led to a different kind of Christmas. This reflected on other parts of the central-east of Europe and the culture and traditions were left semi scattered. However, despite the attempt to smother out the Krampus tradition in the mid-twentieth century, the Bavarian region brought the tradition back with a bang: Krampusnacht.
Krampusnacht started in the late twentieth century and translates to ‘Krampus Night’. It contains the Krampuslauf or ‘Krampus Run.’ This is where a group of people adorn detailed, terrifying costumes of Krampus, wrap up either smaller sticks or horsehair. They run through the streets, terrorizing anyone in sight. You get whipped, chased, soot smeared on your face, scared and you’re laughing all the way through it. It’s a night of chaos and fun. It also represents a resurgence in culture that can be shared across multiple cities on December 6th.
Krampus also appears in grocery stores as the counterpart to a chocolate St. Nick. Many handmade goods reflect the Krampus tradition in the Christkindmarkt (Christmas markets) and Krampuses kick off the celebration of St. Nicholas, with him usually trailing along at the end of the Krampuslauf.
CrossOver into the U.S.
We actually have a Krampuslauf here in the United States, and I honestly would like more cities to have one. Los Angeles has hosted one since 2013 and it models very similarly to a traditional Krampuslauf. I mean, a lump of coal is simply not enough punishment. However, due to its semi-violent nature, most people would not be okay with someone beating their children with a bundle of sticks. I’m not sure how that would fly and if any of them would stick around.
Krampus is a part of a familiar word however, and that is Advent. We associate Advent with chocolate or tiny gifts, while it means simply the time before Christmas i.e. November 28th to December 24th. Instead of tiny gifts, most countries in Europe will have little events and traditions in this time. Therefore, a lot of outings all the way up to a quiet, intimate Christmas day.
However, our most relevant depiction of Krampus isn’t in these events leading up to Christmas, but rather the idea of crashing Christmas in the medium of horror. There has been multiple Christmas-themed horror movies that put him on a pedestal of terror. However, he one that holds a mirror up to how the United States treats the holidays versus other cultures is Michael Dougherty’s 2015 Krampus.
Krampus (2015) and Its Lesson
I know that a lot of people didn’t particularly like this movie a lot. However, with its depressing opening scene and a highlight on family dysfunction in the United States, Krampus offers very sentimental and harrowing commentary on the holidays. A lot of us face stress during this time. I know that prior to cutting off family, the stress I had to deal with before seeing family would sometimes be way too much to handle. That’s what makes this a painfully relatable horror tale.
Krampus is supposed to be fun with a few good scares in to make children behave and give adults nostalgia. This makes his depiction in this film even more terrifying, as it is this grisly terrifying thing that we don’t understand: Krampus turns from lore to a symbol for xenophobia. A poignant scene is the one illustrated above. The grandma that grew up and understood the tradition (as well as tragically ‘lost’ her parents to Krampus) stands and is unafraid to go with him.
This commentary adds onto an array of multiple topics the film deals with: gun control, capitalism, alcoholism, emotional abuse…the list goes on. This film is not really meant to be a fun Christmastime watch like Dougherty’s other film Trick ‘r’ Treat is to Halloween. It is most likely going to be the only interpretation the U.S. is going to see for a while. Therefore it is important to try and understand these traditions and not simply go for the overly-terrifying version of it. Even if he does have adorably homicidal gingerbread men.
Well, I think this is the perfect way to kick off the holiday season and welcome back The Void of Celluloid. I hope you all continue to learn more about Krampus. It really is a cool tradition that was a blast to be a part of. Stay tuned, as next week I’ll give a holiday horror line-up to squeeze in between your repeat viewings of A Christmas Story, Elf and National Lampoon‘s. If you want to see Krampus in action, click here to watch a Krampuslauf. We’ll see you next week here on The Void of Celluloid.