by Rich Moreland, December 2017
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The Krampas and the Old, Dark Christmas
Who is our beloved Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and Merry Ole St. Nick? Every child can come up with an answer, just think toys and other goodies delivered during the holiday season. But have you heard of The Krampas? If not, then let author and researcher Al Ridenour put a bow on the inside story as your holiday treat.
“In Protestant lands,” he begins, the St. Nicholas figure “was transformed (into) a gift giver,” the jolly fellow every child loves. But a quick look at folk tales tells us there’s more because as the good saint moves into modern times he is “accompanied by a number of different characters that have come to be known generally as ‘dark companions.’”
Bad guys hanging out with Santa Claus, what gives? It’s all about social control, the acculturation of social norms, and the next generation. Here’s one of the lessons that has persuaded potential imps to be good children over the centuries.
In parts of Central Europe, specifically the Alpine regions of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy, naughty and misbehaving children feel the sting of switches and are carried off in “a large sack” (or in some cases, a basket) by a version of the dark companion known as the Krampas, Ridenour writes.
Today in those same environs, the “folkloric devil” is celebrated with “runs” (actually walks announced by the sound of bells through town, village, and countryside) of costumed figures whose grotesque masks could frighten any kid. In some parts of the region, house visits are part of the show where the family’s dining table is employed as a barricade to protect children from the evil-looking one.
In his book, The Krampas and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, the author investigates ancient beliefs and connects them to today’s world. The result is a read that combines a continuous history lesson with the flavor of a travelogue complete with dazzling photos exploring the art of the Krampas celebration. Ridenour gives us the cultural back story of how the spooky Christmas rascal came about and describes how the rituals of frolic and amusement that celebrate him are carried on in this modern century. Make note: villagers are discouraged from giving a drink to their local Krampus when he stops by. He can get drunk, you see, and inhibit his next round of visits!
Perchta and Friends
To enliven his research, the author uses interviews and on-site observances to bring Krampas festivals to life. If there is a drawback, however, it is Ridenour’s academic approach that may be off-putting for some readers, especially when he reviews the entomology of important terms.
Frankly, the challenge that plagues every writer in the social sciences is his or her storytelling choice. What is best, a footnoted study or a popular history? Throw in trying to do too much within limited pages and scholars need an effective balancing act to draw in the casual reader.
To his credit, Al Ridenour pulls off a social history that engages the reader with references to fairy tale storytellers and psychologists. After all, The Krampas legend is complex with a cast of characters that can be overwhelming, particularly since this is a Central European legend that cuts across regional history. Local customs and terminology can be confusing if one is unfamiliar with the culture. For example, take a look at the female influence in the Krampas narrative and the words associated with the concept: Perchta, Holda, Holle, and Hulda.
An example of what Ridenour handles effectively is his explanation of the witchcraft craze that plagued Europe centuries ago. He tells us that the Alps (where the mist is always unsettling) is “the birthplace of the modern European notion of witchcraft” and tosses in a reminder of “how the Christmas season was formerly a time of menacing supernatural activity.”
Ridenour goes on to inform the reader that “the old Percht (male image) behind the Krampus mask” is “dreadful” and “capricious.” To carry the thought to its logical conclusion, Ridenour then conflates the “realm of the dead,” the purview of Perchta (female image or spirit), with the male-dominated Christmas image of kindly St. Nicholas. It facilitates the notion that a “fearful wonder (that) once saw offering of porridge placed on snowy Alpine roofs” still lingers with the cookies and other treats we leave “for Santa in dark suburban kitchens.”
Horns and Whips
As mentioned above, the purpose of tales of Krampuses and witches is to terrorize children into following social norms. In the earth’s gloomiest hours, the winter solstice, Christmas can’t escape its educational responsibility.
So as European villagers go about having a bit of entertainment during December, children are reminded that toeing the line is part of moving into adulthood. And, I might add, not without a little erotic stimulation to spice things up.
The author suggests that the horns on the Krampas mask are clearly linked to “virility, sexuality, and fertility” and that whips impart fertility. He relates that “goat-hide thongs to strike women” were significant in ancient Roman festivals and in some parts of the Krampas “runs” today, young men are so equipped to strike local unmarried village girls . . a little S and M flirting to shape them up, we suppose.
Witches and Werewolves
The Krampas and the Old, Dark Christmas is a catalogue of folk legends that live within what was once known in Charlemagne’s time as the Middle Kingdom that stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Italian Pennisula. In the first half of the book, the author gives us a peek at local customs that currently dominate the Christmas season. When he moves to the second half we get visions of witches and werewolves that help frame the roots of these legends in a different and invigorating way.
Do we have any versions of Krampuses in our American holiday celebrations? Sure. Don’t forget the Grinch that Stole Christmas and Gremlins! The little demons play on this side of the Atlantic, too!
For folklore aficionados, The Krampas is a solid read. Likewise for historians, it’s a must have for those who want a fresh view on the power of folklore. Al Ridenour connects some new dots in our understanding of Western culture and its fascinations with the Christmas season.
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Information for The Krampas and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil
- Paperback: 248 pages
- Publisher: Feral House (October 4, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1627310347
- ISBN-13: 978-1627310345