As I’m sure some of you are already aware, there’s a devilish new addition to the usual lineup of holiday films this year. Michael Dougherty, the director of such beloved “meh” films as X-Men 2 and Superman Returns, as well as the Halloween anthology horror Trick ‘r Treat, has decided to ring in the holidays with a Christmas comedy-horror that’s sure to upset any visions of sugarplums you might have had – Krampus. In fact, this year will have seen not one, but two Krampus films, because (in case you missed it) A Christmas Horror Story already came out, starring Krampus.
But who is this Krampus, and why would we start making Christmas movies about him? As it turns out, there have already been a number of holiday films devoted to this night-time terror, beginning with Wolfgang Glück’s 1969 classic, Der Krampus (which you’ll probably never see because ‘Merica!), 2012’s short and little-known comedy Krampus, Jason Hull’s 2013 horror Krampus: The Christmas Devil, and… that’s right, another 2015 film, Krampus: The Reckoning. That’s three Krampus films in the same year! And, believe it or not, Jason Hull has already begun work on next year’s sequel to his 2013 iteration, Krampus: The Devil Returns (2016).
It would seem that our cultural fascination with Krampus is picking up steam. As such, let’s briefly look at this merry monstrosity, who he is and what he represents.
I won’t spend too much time talking about the origins of the Krampus legend.1 But, suffice to say, he’s a goat demon that comes from Germanic folklore and serves as the antithesis of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus).2 Whereas Santa brings presents for good little boys and girls, Krampus apparently beats disobedient children with a bundle of birch sticks and drags them kicking and screaming down into the underworld.
I don’t know about you, but that’s hardly the yuletide tale that I want to send my little ones to bed with. In fact, and this is just a personal note, the more I learn about traditional Germanic folklore and fairytales, the more I am glad that I didn’t grow up in that time and culture. For instance, the original Grimm’s fairytales had some rather gruesome elements, many of which contained morals such as “don’t be curious,” and “do what you’re told,” and “children who ask questions die horrible deaths,” and such. In fact, some of the ways to make sure that your children are not secretly mythical fairies is to either beat them or try burning them in an oven.
Anyhow, I digress. Back to Krampus!
Do you remember what happens to naughty little boys and girls on Christmas night? Well, if you grew up in a Krampus-free home like I did, then you know that Santa brings lumps of coal to place in naughty children’s stockings. Now that I think of it, for low-income families in old-timey homes, a lump of coal in the middle of winter doesn’t sound so bad. Other than that, Santa’s judgment on evil and mischief amounts to little more than nothing. Part of this is because jolly ol’ Saint Nick is supposed to be a fairly omni-benevolent being. He’s kind and loving, and it would seem out of character for him to actually punish a child.3
So, what do you do when you’re a traditional Germanic parent wanting to motivate children into good behavior through fear? You postulate a Krampus. While this is all in good make-believe fun, I think it harkens to a very deep underlying philosophical reality. In order for there to be an actual good, there must be at least the possibility of an actual evil. And if we are speaking in terms of absolutes, this dyad is even more pronounced.
In order to maintain Santa’s character as an all-loving being, you need Krampus to explain any genuine consequences for not following Santa’s statute (being nice). Far from being mere imaginative manipulation, I think this is profoundly meaningful. In fact, this is why I believe that Christian theodicies cannot account for the full breadth of evil and suffering without sooner or later appealing to the Devil and/or demonic activity. On a metaphysical level, given the world in which we find ourselves, in some sense we need a Satan… er, I mean Krampus.
But I digress again.
Interestingly, not only is Krampus making more appearances on the big screen, but he is growing in popularity in general. You can buy Krampus-themed greeting cards, ugly Krampus Christmas sweaters, Krampus Halloween costumes, and even the delishiously intoxicating Krampus Schnapps. He has his own website, and there’s even a run/parade thingy dedicated to the Christmas devil, Krampuslauf, which takes place on the night dedicated to him, December 5th, known as Krampusnacht.
So, why all the hype? Well, in the absence of any sociological studies or surveys, I’ll throw out my two cents.
It seems to me that there is now (and has been for several years) a noticeable shift away from traditional expressions of faith, family, culture, etc. This isn’t something that people are doing without noticing it, and this isn’t some childish rebellion. Rather, people are intentionally redefining the way that they do life because they have found something lacking in the traditional forms.
According to a number of sources, Halloween is by far the favorite holiday of the Millennial generation, those born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s. How much so? If the stats are to be trusted, a little over half of all Millennials (51%) list Halloween as their #1 choice, whereas Christmas falls well behind with only 39% claiming the yuletide as their favorite. While there are all sorts of possible reasons for this, the theory that makes the most sense to me is that with such high divorce rates among Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers, their children (Millennials) don’t find the family-holidays as favorable. For many young people, Christmas no longer means close-knit gatherings with happy families, but rather playing political games between warring factions and enduring uncomfortable awkwardness. Halloween offers a respite from this, providing celebrants with a time to don a mask and lose themselves in fun and irreverent revelry with friends.
And this, I propose, is exactly why Krampus is gaining in popularity. The infernal imp represents a conscious move away from the uptight pretentiousness of our parents’ Christmas, which many young people are beginning to suspect is little more than a show. As religiosity diminishes in Western society, most of these folks don’t actually believe in demons and devils, much less one that is clearly the product of holiday celebrations. However, naturalist inclinations notwithstanding, it still feels a bit like playing with fire to dress up as a demon and tempt the spirits of Christmastide.
And in the dead of winter, when family values and holiday expressions seem to be growing cold, perhaps a little fire is just what we need. What do you think?
1: For more info on the Krampus, check out his Wikipedia page (of course), or this article from National Geographic.
2: For those of you who speak German, National Geographic has produced a nifty little book about the Christmas hell beast, Alpendämonen (which I cannot read because I don't know German).
3: Because we're talking about the mythical spirits of Christmas and not the historical Saint Nikolaos of Myra, we're going to overlook that time he slapped Arius for his view on the Trinity.