Scary Christ­mas is what the Kram­pus brings

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By Michelle Mills South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

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.”

PHOTO BY VERN EVANS

Rick Gal­i­her plays Saint Ni­cholas in Kram­pus Los An­ge­les’ the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion at the Church of the An­gels in Pasadena Dec. 11.

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