There’s an undeniable appeal in the figure of the Krampus, the demonic foil to St. Nicholas, to American audiences tired of a Christmas message that transposes rose-tinted family get-togethers with ghastly mass consumerism. Offering a far darker manifestation of the Yuletide spirit, the Krampus has been featured on ornaments, holiday sweaters, and even in a widely released horror movie bearing the monster’s name. This switch-wielding punisher of naughty children has a decidedly adult appeal in the United States, where fans see the Krampus as a way to inject a little Halloween into Christmas celebrations. This New World translation of the Austro-Bavarian custom differs significantly from its original form, however, and English-speakers seeking a deeper look at the Krampus beyond colorful postcards and YouTube videos have thus far been out of luck. The publication of Al Ridenour’s book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas answers the prayers of Krampus fans curious about the creature’s origins and even over-delivers on its titular promise by providing a look at a whole host of dark spirits that haunt the Alpine Christmas season.
The first section of the book thoroughly explores the experience of attending and participating in a modern-day Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”). There are revealing conversations with members of various troupes who underscore their commitment to tradition and their suspicion of the new “horror” aesthetics of American Krampus culture. There is a strong male bonding element to Krampus troupes, and the men who participate in these events take their costumed duties seriously, with a code of ethics that goes along with the performances. While swatting pretty girls, wrestling matches between members of different troupes, and menacing posturing all take place during the Krampuslauf, members are expected to stay sober, keep in character, and never hurt children during their revelries. This is not to say that these celebrations are an entirely peaceful matter—the book points out cities in which ritualized wrestling can result in broken bones and concussions. Participants in especially violent rites do, however, leave the horns off of their monstrous costumes to avoid especially serious injuries.
Early in the book, the author dispels a number of American misconceptions about the Krampus and his celebrations. Ridenour is explicit in stating that he’s not an anthropologist, and his position is not that of an academic authority but rather that of a fellow traveler. This tone of personal curiosity continues throughout the book, infusing the writing with a charm and accessibility that a more scholarly offering would lack. Chief among popular misconceptions are the date of Krampus activities (December 5 and 6, surrounding the Feast of St. Nicholas), the fact that the Krampus is a class of spirit rather than a singular being, and the revelation that the Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”) in its current incarnation dates only to the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Rowdy winter celebrations, though, have long been a part of European culture, and Krampus festivities are an extension of these rites. The creature itself appears to be a combination of the Devil as portrayed in medieval plays with a mischievous and destructive class of Alpine spirits called Perchten. There’s a fluidity between the Percht and the Krampus, since both wear similar shaggy outfits and fearsome masks. The main difference between the two categories of demons appears to lie in their associated dates: Krampus appears only on December 5 and 6, while Perchten can appear throughout the holiday season. These beasts are accompanied by a number of menacing companions, including witches, wild hunters, and shaggy bogeymen, all of whom seem to delight and terrify children in equal measure.
The central success of Ridenour’s book rests in its use of first sources. Over the course of numerous years, the author attended Krampuslaufen in Austria and Germany, interviewing participants and getting a firsthand look at the tradition. Interestingly, Krampuslauf troupe members seem to balk at the suggestion of a sexual component to the events in spite of evidence that there’s a flirtatious aspect to the costumed men’s interactions with women eager for a “good luck” swatting. They also point to the antiquity of the tradition, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Certainly, there are ancient roots to the notion of dark spirits accompanying the winter cold, but the seemingly rustic aesthetics of the Krampus and Percht costumes are of a more recent origin than participants would like to accept. Ridenour discusses his findings with anthropologists, who weigh in with their own assessment of the Krampus traditions as seen through an academic lens. This mixture of experience and expertise provides a satisfyingly thorough look at the phenomenon.
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas is a Feral House release, and no discussion of one of their publications would be complete without addressing the physical production of the book. Printed on glossy stock in full color, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas has a sturdy feel that suits a reference of its nature. Ridenour’s book favors photographs of the celebrations he discusses over the holiday greeting cards depicting Yuletide spirits, since the former provide a more accurate depiction of the tradition than the so-called “Cuddle Krampus” often shown in illustrations. Full-page reproductions of the masks and costumes worn by Krampus and Perchten troupes give a detailed view of the artistry that goes into these displays.
Simply put, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas is an indispensable overview of a very specific brand of gleefully ghoulish European holiday tradition. Both approachable and thorough, it’s the perfect gift for the subversive soul who wishes for a weirder Christmas.
Article by: Tenebrous Kate
Author: Al Ridenour
Publisher: Feral House (United States)
Publication Date: October 11, 2016
File Under: Folklore, Culture