One of my earliest Christmas memories is when, at the age of four or five, I watched the original animated film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe on the floor of the church basement while the adults prepared for the Christmas pageant. The film is full of fantastic creatures, including griffins, centaurs, and very scary talking wolves. I was equal parts terrified and intrigued, and immediately started asking every adult I saw whether these creatures were real (and checked every closet and wardrobe for secret passages).
Since then, I’ve loved monster folklore (you can hear more of my thoughts on the subject on the History Channel’s True Monsters miniseries), and not surprisingly, from that day forward Christmastime has reminded me of scary monsters and dark adventures. So, when I learned of the Krampus folklore, I was beyond thrilled.
While the story of Krampus dates back centuries, he has only recently become an A-list monster in the States thanks in part to Legendary’s horror comedy Krampus, by Trick ’r Treat director Mike Dougherty. Before the film’s release, however, slideshows from the annual celebration of Nikolospiel (a parade on the 5th of December featuring St. Nicholas, Krampus, and a whole host of frightening companions) were making their way around Facebook back in 2006, and before that they were showing up on old-school message boards and blogs (this group has been marching since 1980). Thank you, internet, for bringing the magical darkness of the beast to the rest of the world.
Person dressed as Krampus at Perchtenlauf Klagenfurt:
The basics of the Krampus mythos are that he is the “shadowy” companion of St. Nicholas, e.g. Santa Claus, the guy who brings gifts to the good kids and wears a ridiculous red suit. Unlike good old Saint Nick, Krampus shows up the evening of December 5th to punish—or in some cases, kill, beat, eat, kidnap, and skin—children who are unworthy of the praise and gifts of St. Nicholas. It’s more than a few steps beyond just leaving a stocking of coal.
He is terrifying, typically standing over seven feet tall with the legs and cloven hooves of a goat, massive horns, a long pointed tail, the tongue and fangs of a snake, and sharp talons for fingernails. Like all mythic beasts, there are lots of versions of Krampus, largely believed to have evolved from pagan supernatural creatures to later notions of the Christian devil. It’s not a coincidence that so many of the scariest monsters share these traits—they’re all built from the most dangerous (and sharp) parts of threatening animals; indeed, you don’t see too many monsters with the fluffy tail of a wolf or the whiskers of a lion.
1896 Austria newspaper illustration of Krampus:
Krampus is an example of a liminal being, a creature that exists in between states like the centaur (man and horse), the sphinx (man and cat), the griffin (bird and lion), as well as cyborgs (man and machine), and even the Green Man (man and vegetable). Liminal beings have such a long and rich history because they allow us to give shape and form to ideas, beliefs, and feelings which show up (or that we want to show up) together, but are distinct from each other.
When it comes to positive traits, the resulting creature is inspiring: powerful, brave, fast, wise, and compassionate—like centaur Chiron or the centaur Leslie Knope. When it comes to negative traits, the creature becomes the embodiment of our worst nightmares: not only violent, but also ferocious, vicious, powerful, vengeful, and able to prey on the most vulnerable of species without mercy or compassion. Krampus, then, is the perfect evil Liminal Being.
But Krampus is not only scary in physicality—the fear is deepened by what his visit represents: a visit from him means you’ve messed up big time. Like any story of the boogeyman, it’s an incredibly effective form of social control, especially for kids who still believe in Krampus. Promises of rewards (gifts from Santa) are great motivators for desired behaviors, but fear of punishment works much faster (though not necessarily better—seriously, don’t beat your kids).
The threat of Krampus communicates to the kids the morals and manners of their culture, what it means to be “good.” The message couldn’t be more clear: if you do not follow the rules, if you are not “good,” then this monster will be unleashed upon you, and you are powerless to stop him. Even beyond childhood, however, Krampus carries a powerful reminder to adults to try and be their best selves; the exchange of postcards featuring Krampus dates back to the 1800s (and likely before).
It is because Krampus is the embodiment of terror and evil that makes his presence this time of year all the more important. As the year comes to an end and a new chapter starts, we’re reminded to be good to one another, and that we do better when we’re kind and compassionate. As adults, we know that Krampus isn’t outside our door, but instead resides inside ourselves—the monster we become when we forget to be kind. What better way to remember than with the very graphic, very scary representation of the exact opposite of good? Sometimes we need a little darkness to remember the importance of the light.