Scary Christmas is what the Krampus brings
The holiday season has a new player — the Krampus, a scary, hairy, horned creature from the depths of Austrian and German folklore, and he’s becoming a part of some Americans’ traditions.
“He’s a bogeyman associated with the Christmas season, in particular associated with the Catholic St. Nicholas, who was not quite same as our Santa Claus,” said Al Ridenour, the director of Krampus Los Angeles, an organization that presents annual events celebrating the mythical creature.
He has also recently published “The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil” (Feral House, $25).
The Krampus is not one creature, but a species, said Ridenour, a Pasadena, Calif., resident. In the Alpine area of eastern Austria and the Bavarian area of southern Germany, it is traditional for a person dressed as St. Nicholas to go door to door on the evening before his feast day, Dec. 6, accompanied by a small group of Krampuses, as well as angels and a person bearing a basket filled with gifts. At each stop, St. Nicholas greets the family and asks the children if they’ve been good. He may also ask the kids to recite from their catechism or a seasonal poem or sing a song as the Krampuses stomp around outside the door.
“It’s a practice that was encouraged by the church. It’s a combination of folk customs and a way that the church encouraged kids to learn to behave well and also learn their catechism,” Ridenour said. “It’s not really about discipline, but I guess there’s this idea if you aren’t good something will happen.”
After their test, the kids get treats, and the Krampuses storm in the house and may swat at the parents’ legs, but they do not usually touch the children.
Krampus traces back to old traditions
The Krampus tradition only goes back to the late 19th century, but its roots can be traced to the 12th
century Epiphany character Frau Perchta, who similarly went door to door checking to see how girls were doing at their spinning, Ridenour said. Other seasonal traditions have also played into the creation of the Krampus.
The Krampus tradition faded after World War II only to spike in the 1950s and ‘60s with a revival of interest in folk culture. Its big boost came with the advent of the internet, helping it spread from rural towns to throughout Austria, Germany, Europe and on to America by the early 2000s, Ridenour said.
“I think Krampus is popular in the U.S. for different reasons than in Europe,” Ridenour said. “In the U.S. people who grew up with punk rock want to have their own kind of Christmas. They want to have a Christmas that’s rebellious, and they see this character with a whip abducting children.
“We’re very protective over children nowadays; it’s a softer culture, so it seems very shocking and brutal and terrible. For a lot of our culture he’s an anti-Christmas character, but everybody needs a response to Christmas because it’s in your face and people also like tradition, so they want a way to acknowledge tradition, even celebrate it, but very much in their own way.”
Saint Nicholas leads the Krampus
Echo Park actor Rick Galiher will be reprising his role as St. Nicholas in the Krampus Los Angeles play for a third year.
“I try to keep in the tradition that St. Nicholas is out to promote the children being good, but he’s not above threatening,” Galiher said. “The Krampus carry out the dirty work. You’ve got a good cop/bad cop dynamic between St. Nicholas and the Krampus, but I kind of view St. Nicholas as the bad cop in disguise.”
St. Nicholas for Galiher is vengeful, ranting and accusatory, sure to spot the good children, but also quick to call out the bad ones. In fact, Galiher calls out members of the audience during the play — all in good fun of course.
“There’s a sense of responsibility where I have to be a leader of all these creatures that’s still accountable. At a moment’s pace, I tell the Krampus ‘Go over there’ or ‘Leave that one alone’; it’s like being a conductor,” Galiher said. “The Krampus is kind of like a minion, like a devil type, a punisher obviously and their appearance is very intimidating. It’s a stark contrast to the sanitized Coca-Cola Santa who has friendly elves; there’s no real danger.”
Santa Claus is warm and nurturing. He is also forgiving
and gives every child a gift, whether they are nice or naughty, Galiher said, unlike Saint Nicholas who will turn wayward kids over to the Krampus.
“If you’re bad, it’s not just being punished in this life, it’s the punishment and potential damnation in hell,” Galiher said. “You’re going down a terrible path in life. It’s about life choices and early life choices can sometimes affect people long term and other times people are quite different as adults.”
Galiher believes the Krampus tradition is becoming popular in America because it provides an opportunity for people to extend Halloween and dressing up.
“What’s wonderful about each of Krampus Los Angeles’ events is there’s a definite spirit of bonding, and it is good-spirited and people are there to have a good time and to celebrate. That’s the point of the holidays: To come together with people that you enjoy spending time with and have a fun experience with and they certainly deliver that,” Galiher said. “People want to see St. Nicholas, but people really want to see the Krampus. It’s like an army. He’s like a religious general setting up the troops to combat evil, combat the bad, and that’s beautiful and chilling at the same time.”
Rick Galiher plays Saint Nicholas in Krampus Los Angeles’ theatrical production at the Church of the Angels in Pasadena Dec. 11.