Horror for the Holidays: Santa, Krampus, and the Dark Divine
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a kind of companion piece to this one, see Ryan’s “Have a Very Scary Christmas!” over at Dreamstudies.org.]
This Christmas Eve as you lay the children down to sleep and lock the doors, you will have the chance once again to notice that feeling of holiday vulnerability creeping on up. You may feel it especially when you hang the stockings with care or leave out a plate of cookies for Santa. Something feels hollow. It’s a subtle, diffuse sense that we usually dismiss as misplaced nostalgia or a bit of underdone potato or undigested beef. A vague foreboding on the periphery of awareness. A nagging intuition that something important has not been acknowledged.
Many of us, perhaps even most of us, simply ignore the feeling and go to bed (perhaps to be plagued by unpleasant dreams of unformed menace). But if we take the opposite approach, if instead of forgetting this annual sense of emptiness and dread we focus on it, follow its thread, and let it take us where it wants to lead, what we will discover is nothing less than an ancient tale about the horror of the holidays: the real nightmare before Christmas.
He sees you when you’re sleeping
Although there are many roots buried beneath the Santa Claus complex, American Christmas traditions come mostly through the Pennsylvania Dutch, those German-American settlers who arrived in large numbers in the Eastern woodlands during the 18th and 19th centuries. The name “Santa Claus” appears to be a corruption of the Dutch settlers’ “Sinter Klaus,” or St. Nicholas.  But in the German Alpine traditions, jolly old St. Nick does not ride alone. His wingman is the Krampus, a beastly “anti-Santa” that has been present throughout the last three hundred years of Christmas tradition in Europe.
According High German lore, the Krampus accompanies St. Nikolaus on the journey to everyone’s home; in fact, the two of them often carpool in the same magical sled, and they arrive with complementary missions. St. Nick doles out presents to the good kids, but the Krampus shows up to beat, torture, and abduct the baddies in a burlap bag that he carries slung over his back.
Fittingly, the physical appearance of the Krampus is distinctly demonic: he has long horns, pointy ears, and mismatched feet (one a cloven hoof and the other a claw-like monstrosity), and he is covered with hair. He is in every way the pagan satyr of the dark forests arisen to balance out the solar cheer of the St. Nicholas myth. Or you could call him the Christmas Devil. At many towns in modern-day Austria, Krampus festivals still take place on December 6th, the traditional feast day of Nicholas, with men getting wasted on the local brew and terrorizing children as they parade up and down the street dressed as demonic beasts. 
What I find particularly interesting is that although there are always a few seasonal reminders of the Krampus tradition in America, for the most part the dark side of Santa’s judgment has failed to penetrate the American psyche. The long history of the Krampus in European Christmas lore was curiously scrubbed out from our cultural repertoire when St. Nick came overseas to the New World. But despite this psychic-cultural omission, over the years there have been a few American journalists and publications that have called out the significance of horror in our Yuletide traditions. NPR carried a story in December 2012 on the rise of Krampus celebrations in America.  The New York Times did something similar over a decade ago, at the turn of the millennium. Time magazine did it 50 years ago. And in each case, both the information and the tone of its presentation has remained practically identical: In some backwards places in Europe, these journalistic organs tell us, Christmas is scary. Isn’t that weird?
For those to whom such knowledge isn’t new, what can seem weird is this American insistence on the weirdness of associating Christmas with horror. The association, after all, is ancient. To single it out as strange is the height of naiveté.
Then again, sensing the strangeness of Yuletide fears, and seeing the Krampus legend through new, unjaded eyes, might lead to some valuable reflections and insights. After all, why is Christmas secretly so scary? And who are we really inviting down the chimney anyway?
The Winter Feast
The origins of Christmas horror extend far back into European history. It’s pretty commonly known these days that Yuletide was originally a time of year celebrated by the indigenous Germanic peoples of Europe until it and they were Christianized in the Middle Ages. The Yule festival was a celebration of the dark days, when the nights are long and the days short and cold. Animals were sacrificed, blood was boiled in kettles, and everyone got drunk and celebrated their “fertility” while plenty of that year’s harvest was still left to go around.
The celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 likewise has a pagan origin. It is a cultural graft of Brumalia, the bacchanalian midwinter’s feast in ancient Rome. The solstice occurs on Dec 25th on the Julian calendar, but with today’s Gregorian calendar it falls on December 21st. So here at least two cultural strands of unruly and wild behavior that have been linked with the dark days.
As for St Nicholas, the Christian saint from Greece, his gift-giving personage has been grafted onto the Yuletide celebrations that were held in honor of Odin the Wanderer, a shape-shifting, many-named god of the North who led the Great Hunt and rode a eight-legged horse. (Unrelated to Christmas, but interesting in its own right, is the fact that Tolkien is said to have based the wizard Gandalf, with his great white beard, traveling clothes, and staff, on of the wandering aspect of Odin.) Of particular relevance here is the fact that Odin rewarded children who left food for his horse by filling their stockings with gifts.  He delivered them, of course, by going down the chimney, a favorite entrance of witches and shamanic figures the world over.
But Odin isn’t the only smoky spirit that entered the home in pre-Christian Europe. Another strand of the Krampus myth can be seen in Perchta, the 16th century Germanic goddess, who, like Krampus, had one good foot and one enlarged foot, often called a swan foot, indicating a penchant for animal transformation.  If no one left an offering for her on her feast day, she was known to slit people’s bellies open, pull out their entrails, and stuff them with straw. She came into the home around the mid-winter solstice, and also around the twelfth night, or January 6th, and delivered gifts to hard-working children but a death warrant to slackers.  Unlike the beatific St Nicholas, Perchta didn’t need a dark consort because she contained the dual nature of judgment within herself: she could show up as a lovely white-robed woman or as an old hag, depending on the moral purity of the household.
The 1800s appear to have been a high point for Krampus literature. Graphic postcards depicting the creature doing terrible things to children were popular, including, for example, images of the Krampus drowning a child in ink and then spearing him with a pitchfork.
In 19th century Germany, the good cop/bad cop routine was a little more gentle, with Dark Santa played by Knecht Ruprecht, who wore furs or din-covered leathers and asked children if they had prayed. He left stones and coal for gifts, and occasionally bundles of birch so that parents could whip their children more effectively. 
We should note that there’s an especially weird aspect to this entire tradition — I mean weird beyond the obvious high weirdness that’s visible on the surface of the thing — because the invitation of the shamanic wildman/animal transformer into our homes goes against the grain of our conscious expectations and behavior, and also against many other traditions associated with Christmas. After all, so many of our Christmas traditions are actually about repelling harmful spirits. Wreaths of pine and spruce are evergreen amulets that protect doorways from bringing in disease and death, while garlands tied with red cloth have been used to ward off evil spirits for centuries. Even caroling has an ancient ritual history that began with people blessing apple orchards to keep them free of malicious spirits for the next year’s harvest. These are all ancient apotropaic agents, that is, objects and rituals used in liminal spaces to combat the uncertain terrors of the night.
But we leave the chimney clear for penetration by spiritual entities. By guarding all of the other openings of the house with amulets of protection, we effectively funnel all of the energetic vulnerability of the dark night into this sooty opening. What’s more, we subvert the old European use of children’s shoes as witchtraps by expecting our stockings, hung by the chimney with care, to be filled with gifts. And like the woods people of Northern Europe have been doing since the time of Perchta, we leave an offering of food at the table.
This sets up some very strong cognitive dissonance and makes for a very weird night. Children pick up on it pretty easily, too: they are simultaneously fascinated by and terrified of Christmas Eve. And why not? The normal routine of sleep and waking and the emotions surrounding them is completely upended. Sleep comes late and is marked by multiple panicked awakenings at the normal sounds of the night. Was that the patter of reindeer feet? The ringing of bells? The visceral reaction of children to all of these things may be the closest we can get nowadays to what’s really going on at Christmastime. Christmas Eve is the night when we let down our barriers and let a dubious creature slither down the chimney precisely when we and our children are most vulnerable, as we lie asleep in bed.
Judgment at the Witches’ Hour
Anxiety is a prerequisite to the meeting on Christmas Eve. It’s not accidental at all, and so we engineer its creation. We say, for instance, that we must wrap presents that have mysteriously been left to the last minute, just like last year. But this is not really a time-budgeting issue; we are compelled to stay up. The urge for vigil is strong despite the lack of cultural explanation for why we are on alert. Like Scrooge in Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, we fall asleep in the overchair, in an uncomfortable pose reminiscent of soldiers on night watch.
What is the real reason for the season? It’s not just to bring us closer to the divine child, still eloquently preserved in Christian culture (and also, where I live, in many automated nativity miniatures in suburban front yards), but to bring us to an encounter with the dark divine. This is what’s missing in America’s Christmas sensibility. This is why Christmas Eve has lost its teeth, and why Santa’s list is half-baked. What’s more, the dark divine is secretly sought for by our children, while we adults vicariously watch and reminiscence, passing on the seed of joy/terror.
“What is the real reason for the season? It’s not just to bring us closer to the divine child, but also close to an encounter with the dark divine.”
Our confrontation with this spirit on the darkest night can just as easily lead to regret, suffering, and horror as it can to peace, love, and abundance. At its most stripped-down, long before the usual moralistic functions about good/bad little children who did/did not work hard enough come into the picture, our dramatic re-enactment of an ancient visitation rite reveals a desire for judgment that is beyond the reach of our usual authorities: a cosmic judgment, an x-ray of our inner value beyond the social.
Essentially, Tim Burton had it right in The Nightmare before Christmas. The power of the winter holiday lies in its ambivalence, wonderfully illustrated in the film as that moment (seen at the end of the trailer below) when you’re not sure whether a strange nocturnal visitor is going to hand you a toy truck or a shrunken head. When we collectively scrubbed out the primal notion, memory, and experience of horror from “the reason for the season,” we lost access to a portion of our own souls.
As I type these words, it’s past midnight on the eve of the winter solstice. It’s also the eve of the end of the Mayan long-count calendar. It’s the longest night of the year, and with a pelting rain falling outside my window, it feels like the darkest night as well. Before I head to bed, just in case I’ve got the date wrong, I will be leaving out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. Just to be safe. Why tempt fate?
 Brad Igou, “Pennsylania German Christmas Traditions,” Amish Country News, Winter 1998. Accessed December 13, 2012.
 Wikipedia, s.v. “Krampus,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus, accessed December 13, 2012.
 Peter Crimmins, “Horror for the holidays: Meet the Anti-Santa,” NPR, December 10, 2011. Accessed December 13, 2012.
 Zeller, T. (December 24, 2000). Have a very scary Christmas. New York Times. Accessed 12/13/12 at http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/24/weekinreview/ideas-trends-have-a-very-scary-christmas.html
 “Austria: Throw Out Krampus,” Time, December 7, 1953.
 An interesting political footnote to this phenomenon, as well as an early mainstream American mention of the Krampus tradition, can be found in a 1934 New York Times article titled “Krampus disliked in Fascist Austria,” which reported that Austrian religious leaders feared the Krampus was associated with fascism and urged a blanket boycott of the tradition by all good Christians, even as the fascist government of Austria itself tried to suppress Krampus traditions.
 Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (New York: McFarland & Co., 2006), 171–173
 Wikipedia, s.v. “Perchta,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perchta, accessed December 13, 2012.
 Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (1835). From English released version Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (1888). Accessed December 13, 2012.