Krampus, the European Christmas monster, is having a moment
From Hollywood movies to events around the world, St. Nicholas' helper is everywhere
Blame Christoph Waltz. In December of 2014, Hollywood's favourite villain (currently flaring his nostrils at James Bond in Spectre) appeared on The Tonight Show and famously introduced Jimmy Fallon, and thus the western hemisphere, to Krampus, St. Nicholas's evil twin.
Krampus doesn't mess around. If you've been bad, you're playing with fire.- FisH of Toronto band Squid Lid
Part Austrian folk tale, part pagan leftover, Krampus is not so much the "anti-Santa," as he is often described, as he is Santa's enforcer, the bad cop to Santa's kindly constable. Krampus's origins are murky, beginning somewhere deep in pre-Christian Alpine witch lore, but let's leave the academics to that task: all you really need to know is that Krampus is big, hairy and mean. He looks like the devil, with a long, Gene Simmons tongue, black furry split hooves and curly horns. And he acts worse.
Krampus's job is a simple but decidedly not Christmassy task — he terrorizes naughty children. On St. Nicholas Day, December 6, or the eve of the day (depending on local tradition), children in northern Europe are visited by St. Nick and given treats or, if they have been bad, are handed over to St. Nick's pet monster Krampus and are forthwith beaten with a stick, put into chains, and thrown in a sack that transports them directly to hell. Now that's a behaviour incentive!
Throughout Europe, St. Nicholas has plenty of nasty sidekicks. There's Knecht Ruprecht, who carries a sack of ashes which is, um, applied to children who can't remember their prayers; Germany's Belsnickle, another stick-wielder, who demands songs in exchange for treats (tin eared children get the stick); and Befana, the Italian "Christmas witch", who punishes misbehavers with rotten candy. Krampus also bears a strong resemblance to the Hungarian pagan monster Busó. But Busó's job is to usher in spring, not to traumatize toddlers.
By now, the gentle Canadian voice inside your head, the one that sounds just a little bit like Adrienne Clarkson, is thanking the stars that we have no such malevolent nonsense in our fair land… or so you think. Krampus is about to rub his calloused palms all over your Christmas.
He's already made cameo appearances on the cartoons American Dad, Robot Chicken and The Venture Brothers, but now he's playing the lead in two upcoming movies: the Canadian anthology film A Christmas Horror Story (starring William Shatner) and the U.S. horror-comedy Krampus, starring Oscar nominee Toni Collette and the Anchorman franchise's David Koechner. Krampus is having, in showbiz speak, his breakout moment.
For a handful of Toronto Krampusites, however, the sudden popularity of this once obscure Christmas oddity must seem like a vindication. Since 2012, the "masked spectacle" band Squid Lid has sponsored both a Krampus Parade, complete with monstrous costumes and plenty of birching, followed by the electro pop-infused Krampus Ball.
Squid Lid's FisH (a.k.a. James Zirco Fisher) notes that "North America has no real ramifications for not being nice all year like European tradition does, so we wanted to introduce Krampus to our area with our own spin on it… Krampus represents a rebellion in seasonal expectations. It is drilled into our North American heads to buy presents and spread the glad tidings of the season regardless of who deserves it; however, the tradition of Krampus doesn't mess around. If you've been bad, you're playing with fire."
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Brett Despotovich, a 33 year old artist and curator from Toronto, is a Krampus devotee and reliable participant in the Toronto Krampusfest.
"Christmas in my lifetime," Despotovich says, "has almost purely been a celebration of consumption and debt. I'm sure more people who celebrate Christmas deserve the fear of an annual beating instead of being showered with gifts. Usually, neighbourhood parents bring their kids out to enjoy the parade. The kids seem like good kids with bright futures, so I don't know if any get whipped. The parents, though? Definitely whipped."
But, if Krampus is the cure to Christmas sugar comas, where's he been all of our lives?
While the celebrity endorsements don't hurt his visibility, Krampus' "arrival" speaks to something deeper, a growing unease many of us have with Christmas. The holiday, as it is celebrated today, in excess, has far too much cultural power. North Americans are overinvested in Christmas's importance. Theologically speaking, isn't Easter more important to Christians than Christ's birthday? Isn't His sacrifice more worthy of celebration than His mere arrival? Besides, the Virgin Mary is the real hero of Christmas. However, try starting any sensible public discussion about Christmas' domineering ways and watch what happens. Note the ridiculous, manufactured controversy over Starbucks' "holiday cup" (cue the annual War on Christmas rage).
To people who feel Christmas has gotten too big for its britches, Krampus is an ouch-inducing antidote. Krampus conveys none of the Christmas virtues. He is unforgiving, unkind and likely smells like a forgotten gym bag. He does not twinkle like a snowflake, he roars like a dyspeptic old bull. He does not lend himself to carol tributes. His true partner is not Saint Nick, it's Krampus' fellow spade tailed demon Old Nick.
And since the Christmas season now starts in August, Christmas has become an annual endurance run, not a holiday. A little evil is needed to tart up the treacly goo of the holiday, as the sacred cannot thrive without the profane. To wit, Austria has always supported a healthy trade in Krampus-based erotica — erotica usually involving blushing maidens and high spirited, goatish devils — and the Austrian town of Klagenfurt sponsors an annual 1000-plus Krampi strong "Krampus Run," a cross between a Pride Parade and a kinky Cirque du Soleil show.
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Krampus enthusiasts don't hate Christmas, they're simply realists; seasoned holiday season veterans who fully enjoy Yuletide merriment, but know that all those home and hearth moments come with a cost — manic, hosting anxiety-fuelled shopping, inevitable family squabbles, hangovers and gangs of psychotic children high on corn syrup.
Krampusistas know the damn cat will always get into the tree and knock off the ornaments, and the turkey will always be a little too dry for Aunt Irma's taste and that the best part of Christmas is the handful of days surrounding December 25th when everybody at least tries to behave themselves.
Behave or else. Krampus is watching.