With a major motion picture release and several significant organized events coming up across the United States this weekend, 2015 may be the year Krampus, the Christmas devil, breaks through to the American mainstream.
Krampus, for anyone out of the loop, is a horned, anthropomorphic, demon-like creature who, according to Alpine folklore, is a companion to Saint Nicholas. He acts as the yin to Santa’s yang—punishing the naughty children while Saint Nicholas rewards the good. Krampus provides the dark balance to Saint Nicholas’ light.
Traditionally, Krampus is thought to beat naughty children with sticks. Children that have been extra bad are treated more severely: they are stuffed into bags and thrown into the river. It’s really quite a brilliant legend: if your kids are misbehaving, scare the shit out of them with the threat of being flogged and tortured by the Christmas devil!
It’s been theorized that the Krampus lore was brought over to the U.S. by German-speaking immigrants, but never took hold on American shores due to anti-German sentiment over the first and second World Wars… but that Santa Claus did catch on because he made a great mascot for the Coca Cola company. A devil who beats children isn’t really going to be an effective soda pop pitchman. A jolly fat guy who hands out gifts? Perfect.
In Alpine countries, Krampusnacht is traditionally celebrated on December 5th or 6th. On this night festivals are typically held in which Saint Nicholas will visit the good children while townspeople dressed as Krampus or perchten, wild pagan spirits, will terrorize the naughty ones. These festivals include a Krampuslauf, or “run of the Krampuses,” and are often alcohol-fueled free-for-alls. It is customary for celebrants to be offered schnapps and, in some cases, for (naughty) people to be actually beaten by the hairy “creatures.”
While the Krampus stories had been on my radar for some time through studies of Germanic culture, and a very special 2004 episode of The Venture Brothers, it wasn’t until I saw a video which had gone minorly viral in 2008 that I became obsessively interested in the modern celebration of the Krampus traditions in the Alpine regions.
This video titled “Krampus attack in Silandro (South Tirol)” is essentially a collection of clips of costumed celebrants beating the crap out of townsfolk. I was utterly mesmerized:
Thus began a personal obsession with the creature and the customs which lead to eventually organizing an Americanized version (obviously with no beatings of random strangers) of a Krampuslauf in 2010 in Columbia, South Carolina. Another group of people in Portland, Oregon had a similar idea that same year, and the first two Krampus-related events in the United States were launched.
It didn’t take long for other cities to quickly fall in line, and in the past six years the number of Krampus celebrations across the United States has grown by leaps and bounds. There were, at last count a year ago, over 30 different Krampus celebrations in different cities—some taking place on Krampusnacht, some taking place on weekends near the date. This year that number could double, with small Krampuslaufs popping up all over the map. Something about this Christmas demon is starting to resonate with Americans. Perhaps it’s the fact that he represents the antidote to the unrestrained American sense of entitlement?
Some of the major Krampus celebrations are taking place this year in the aforementioned Columbia and Portland, but also in Dallas, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans. Perhaps the best Krampus event currently held in the United States takes place in Bloomington, Indiana. While many organizers take a more anarchic approach, the Bloomington group works with city officials to put on a major event which attracts thousands of spectators and has more of a “family fun day” vibe. The time they put into event planning and costuming is evident and they currently set the bar for American Krampus celebrations.
Every city seems to do something a bit different, which makes the whole phenomenon of these festivals sprouting up all the more interesting. Detroit’s event is held for charity. Dallas does a walk and pub crawl. Los Angeles has five different major events: a run, a traditional play, films, a ball, and another Krampus-themed show. Elgin, Illinois’ group received arts grant funding for their costume designs. New Orleans’ celebration culminates in a Krampus dance party. Columbia features a “Circle of Atonement” which allows volunteers to enter the circle and be spanked by the Krampuses in order to be absolved for their sins of the past year… so that Santa will visit them on the 25th!
Krampusnacht, Richmond, VA
Watching these festivals spring up over the past six years has been like watching a brand new holiday take shape, with each participating group adding their own spin. There are no established traditions for an American celebration, other than the bits and pieces that can (LEGALLY) be adopted from the Alpine traditions—which sends the whole shebang into different and interesting directions anyplace a new one pops up.
Krampunacht, Los Angeles
Krampus is seemingly everywhere now. Krampus: The Christmas Devil was released this year and the film Krampus receives wide theatrical release this week. A new graphic novel Krampus: Shadow of Saint Nicholas just came out as well as the novel Krampus: The Yule Lord. A couple of years ago a fantastic book of Krampus-related art was released, titled Krampus: The Devil of Christmas There seems to be no sign of this tide slowing.
It’s 2015. This weekend Krampus IS coming.
And if you’ve been naughty…
He will find you.
Enjoy here the new holiday favorite, Actually Huizenga’s “Krampus Redux”: