The last decade has seen an unexpected resurgence of the Germanic folklore figure Krampus in American popular culture. We’ve had Hollywood-produced Santa movies since there’s been a Hollywood, and the Santa Claus myth has been deconstructed and reconstructed therein so many times that now he’s little more than a duct-taped body cobbled together from many disparate parts.
Santa is used sometimes to promulgate the humanist meaning of Christmas (Miracle on 34th Street), sometimes as a pop-mythologized hero figure (Santa Claus: The Movie), and occasionally as a bit of background dressing (The Nightmare Before Christmas). One cannot really expect any more religious meaning than this from a country founded on deistic-humanist principles, but too frequently it makes for thin fare.
None of which has anything to do with the real St. Nicholas, of course. He’s been off doing his own thing for centuries while his doppelgängers run wild…
But Krampus? Krampus was the Devil of Christmas, albeit a chained devil. He was a companion of Sinterklaas who whipped evil children with birch branches and carted them off to Hell in his bag. The chains represent the Devil’s subjugation to God, and show that he operates at Heaven’s sufferance. That, more or less, is the traditional version of Krampus.
The newer pop-Krampus is the sworn enemy of Santa Claus and his equal. He’s the yin to Santa’s yang; Santa’s opposite, rather than his slave. All of which came into focus recently when I watched the new Michael Dougherty film Krampus. Everything this film demon does is a twisted inversion of American Santa tropes. This new Krampus is Santa’s “shadow,” imitating and subverting the jolly old elf at every turn. If anything, the new Krampus might be more powerful than Santa, even being described as a more ancient evil.
(None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy the film. I actually thought it was a rather good example of that dying genre, the morality tale. The production values were excellent, and the dark humor frequently reminded me of Gremlins. It might have too much horror for a broad audience to enjoy, though.)
Carl Jung would doubtless have written a two-volume set about what Krampus Resurgent means about our collective unconscious. Maybe our country is using this to work through its growing hatred of Christian holy days. Maybe we’re tired of paper-thin happiness and manufactured joy. Maybe it’s an indicator of our increased cynicism about the commercialization of Christmas. Maybe subconsciously we all know that our anti-religious attitude is going to get us dragged down to Hell someday, and we’re manifesting that fear through pop culture. How long until we start seeing the Krampuslauf on our city streets?
What’s next? Will we be rewriting our classic Christmas stories to include this dark beast? The Christmas Carol, with Krampus.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”