As soon as the final pumpkin is thrown in the trash, we begin to mourn the loss of Halloween for another 365 days. What you may not know is that the celebration of the Christmas season can be so much darker and more wicked than Halloween at its best. Author Al Ridenour is here to help with that. Over the past few years, Krampus has become an easy icon to fall back on for those who don’t dig Santa or Christian doctrine.
The frightening visage and reputation as a creature that terrifies children has increased the popularity of the European myth of Krampus, leading to movies like 2015’s Krampus and 2016’s lower budget Krampus Unleashed. However, these pop-culture representations of the mythos are not those that Austrian and Eastern European cultures have been celebrating for centuries. These recent American-based ideas have arisen only recently and have been spread like an itchy crotch disease all across social media.
Enter Al Ridenour and his new book from Feral House Press, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Ridenour went to Austria to experience Krampus culture firsthand.
In certain regions of Austria, Krampus isn’t just a creepy creature used to encourage kids to behave themselves. Krampus is a culture. In contrast to the American take on the mythology, Krampus is a type of creature and not the formal name of the creature itself. Ridenour puts it best by saying the Krampus is more a term for a creature species (such as vampire), not a name (like Dracula).
Ridenour also witnessed the “Krampus runs” first hand. In this tradition, men in their teens to forties create elaborate costumes made of fur, don handcrafted masks, and join together in what is called a “Pass.” In large groups, these enthusiasts gather to frighten children and start the Christmas season off right.
The Krampus Pass has received an unfair reputation for savagery. During the festivities, figures dressed as the beast will often swat the legs of children with small switches, thin leather straps, or reeds. As may have been misunderstood before, this isn’t the type of corporal punishment visited upon children in, say, a Puritanical household. These swattings are an organized group event and attendees go out of their way to reach the front of the crowd to get a swat. Some parents even push their own children forward, feeling that the strokes lead to good luck in the coming year.
According to Ridenour, the adventures of the Krampus are always accompanied by the guiding hand of St. Nicholas. In this tradition, St. Nicholas is not the chubby, red-suited man many of us have come to associate with American consumerism and Coca-Cola, but rather a necromancer of sorts. According to one version of the mythos, St. Nicholas resurrected the bones of three children who had been murdered by a local inn owner. He in turn became the patron saint of children, thus the most qualified figure to protect children from the Krampus itself. During the holiday season both figures will visit local homes. The man that portrays St. Nicholas will provide small gifts for the children who have behaved themselves, while his companion will offer up fearful snarls to warn the young ones what awaits them should they stray from goodness.
Al Ridenour’s book is an absolute delight and filled with in-depth descriptions of the customs and community spirit related to the Krampus. He focuses not just on the culture, but the myths and legends that have blended together to create the modern incarnation of the beast. Ridenour casually sweeps away misinformation while telling engaging tales that prevent this from being another boring history lesson. If you want to know the real roots or find something that fits your dark sensibilities this holiday season, I would recommend adding Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil to your reading list.
All images courtesy of Feral House Publishing.