Everyone likes to celebrate Christmas in their own way — decorating the tree, opening presents, attending midnight Mass. Meanwhile, some cultures have a very different tradition: dressing up as a hairy horned monster to roam the streets.
Although the legend of Krampus has become increasingly popular in the English-speaking world, even inspiring a Hollywood horror film in 2013, he is originally the product of ancient European folklore. In the Alpine regions of Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and Croatia, he is depicted as a goatlike creature covered in black hair, with protruding horns and a long forked tongue. He is described as the dark counterpart of Saint Nicholas: while good children receive gifts from the bearded saint, naughty children are visited by Krampus. He shakes chains to frighten them and carries birch branches to swat them.
A similar figure named Peltznickel haunted the German-speaking diaspora in other parts of the world, including the Volgadeutsch communities of Russia where my ancestors lived. Children were warned to be good with the sinister admonition, “Der Peltznickel kommt!” (Peltznickel is coming!)
What is this creature doing at Yuletide, though? Isn’t the idea of a frightening, horned monster antithetical to everything Christmas stands for — generosity and kindness, peace on earth and goodwill to men?
Sure, the old legend may sound fearsome, a scare tactic to make children behave. If we look at how people celebrate Krampus in the Alpines today, though, we won’t see fear or darkness — just the opposite. At a traditional Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”), young Europeans dress as the creature and roam the streets, giving out gifts and drinking schnapps. With their horns and masks, they become the lovable Trickster, the mischievous wild man of the forest, a character earthy, hearty, and joyful. Mountain towns fill with unbridled merriment and gaiety. This sort of lighthearted festivity is exactly what Christmas and Yuletide celebrations have been for many centuries.
Of course, that’s also why some folks have always hated Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge may be a fictional character, but history is filled with real-life killjoys who want to say “Humbug” to the whole holiday. When Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritans took over the English government in 1645, they outlawed Christmas for being “decadent.” The Puritans in North America took it even more seriously, fining any colonist for observing the holiday. Life is serious, they said, it is harsh and cold and dark. There is nothing to celebrate.
Whenever such Grinch-like attitudes arise, Krampus reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously. This is a season of joy, after all. As we gather together on the cold, dark nights of winter and wait for the light of dawn, Krampus prompts us to seek the warmth of the hearth, the comforting company of kith and kin. To eat and drink and be merry together as heaven and nature sing.
David J. Schmidt is an author, podcaster, multilingual translator, and homebrewer who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, California.
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