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Horror for the Holidays: Santa, Krampus, and the Dark Divine

Watching the children get chastised is part of the Krampus fantasy (Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria; newspaper-illustration from 1896).

Watching the children get chastised is part of the Krampus fantasy (Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria; newspaper-illustration from 1896).

[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. [1] 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. Read the rest of this entry