by Philip Menchaca
This time of year, when the Salvation Army begins its bell-ringing in earnest, bloggers begin a similarly venerable tradition: decrying the divorce of Christ from Christmas and decrying the decriers with pugilistic screeds on the Pagan origins of Christmas. I find them dull. Not only do they adhere to a peculiarly limited interpretation of Christmastime, overlooking things like generosity and love in favor of being right, but they also overlook one of the most important figures who arrives to help us celebrate this time of year: Krampus.
If you have never seen Krampus, imagine a hairy devil with a protruding tongue and a bundle of twigs used for whipping naughty children (in France a similar figure is known as Pèrre Fouettard, “Father Whipper”). For especially bad children, Krampus reserves more extreme punishments: the tearing off of ears, drowning, eating, and kidnapping. I like to imagine that the story of Krampus began with a frustrated parent, who found the promise of presents no longer effective. When it comes to behavioral management, Santa’s the carrot, Krampus, the stick.
Krampus got his start in the Alpine regions of central Europe. On Krampusnacht, people dress as Krampus, donning furs and wooden masks, and roam through the town in a nightmarish parade. Krampus also often appears on Christmas cards. If you’ve ever wondered why an Austrian formulated the principles of psychoanalysis, perhaps it’s because they have more need of it than most. Indeed, Krampus is only one of a number of disturbing characters from European folklore. Disney has worked hard to sanitize these stories, but the Grimm’s I remember punished people by making them dance in fiery iron clogs until death. Other stories are equally morbid. Cinderella’s stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by a dove. The Little Mermaid commits suicide. An inveterate Thumb-Sucker has his fingers snipped off by a peripatetic tailor and a girl who plays with matches burns to death. These are not cheerful tales, though they are honest tales. Life does not exist separate from tragedies or sorrow, and sometimes the real world is as frightening as make-believe.
Krampus reminds us of the frightening things, but he also represents a kind of justice. After all, only the bad children have to worry about Krampus. And Krampus makes it easier to deal with fears during a time that’s supposed to be all about joy. My worst nightmares have always concerned the unknown, have always crept in not as a fear of something, but as pure, abstract fear and despair, the kind of feeling one starts to get in late December in the Alps. I much prefer the solid, hairy Krampus to amorphous terror. Santa and Krampus make it easy by telling me exactly who and what to fear. Indeed, without Krampus, Christmas seems a little empty. You don’t understand gratitude until you go to sleep wondering if you’ll wake up with your ears intact. Rejoicing reaches new levels when you know exactly what to give thanks for. Because ultimately Christmas isn’t just about being thankful for what you have, it’s also about what you’ve been saved from. So this Yuletide, let’s put the Krampus back in Christmas.
Like Santa and Krampus, Philip Menchaca gets the job done.