The Misunderstood Krampus
Over the last few years, the centuries-old figure of Alpine Europe, the Krampus, has become increasingly well known in the United States, thanks to books (et al) by Monte Beauchamp, and appearances on the Venture Bros, some Anthony Bourdain show or other, and the Colbert Report. As a result, the Krampus has become the subject of popular merchandise, including t-shirts, greeting cards, stickers, and figurines, leading some to assert that the Krampus, perhaps like Christmas itself, has become too commercial.
But my concern lies elsewhere. In many descriptions and depictions of the Krampus I have seen across the internet, he is frequently described as the “anti-Santa,” the villain of Christmas. That he is the Christmas Satan to Santa’s Christmas God, in some kind of Manichaean duality, that the two are locked in some kind of battle for children’s lives. This, I feel, shows a misunderstanding of the Krampus on a fundamental level.
First of all, it’s important to remember that the Krampus is the companion of Saint Nicholas. They’re on the same team. Furthermore, the chains the Krampus wears are there to remind you that he is subordinate to the Saint’s power. Whatever evil he may have once represented has been defeated, and evil has been turned to the forces of good.
Additionally, while, yes, it is the duty of the Krampus to punish naughty children, why does that make him a villain? Punishing those who have done wrong is the very central idea of justice, isn’t it? But, Benito! you say. His methods are severe! Whippings from birch branches! Carrying children off to hell! How can you defend such things?
To this I reply: these are threats, intended to scare children straight. Does he really beat children? Does he really carry them off to hell? The patron saint of children is standing right there, folks. What is justice if it is not tempered with mercy? The Krampus is a warning.
But don’t be deceived: he is clearly a powerful creature, sharp of claw and swift of foot. But despite what some would have you believe, this power isn’t dedicated to harming children: remember, he is a tool of Saint Nicholas, who is dedicated wholly to protecting children.
The Christmas season is a time of darkness, in a literal and metaphorical sense. The nights are longer, the sun slips away faster, the air is cold. People used to believe that Christmas, much like Halloween, was a time when the veil between this world and the next was very thin indeed. It was dangerous to roam the night due to the presence of fairies, witches, werewolves, goblins and trolls.
Fight fire with fire, fight monsters with monsters. You might scoff at this, but the proof is in the imagery: Krampus and his other shaggy Yuletide compatriots such as the Klaubauf are traditionally bedecked with bells. This very ancient tradition had a specific purpose: to drive off evil spirits and summon good ones. To the pre-Christian Alpine people, Krampusse and Perchten were guardians, not devils.
Finally, the story of the Krampus represents a central metaphor of Christmas: redemption, renewal, a new beginning. A woodland spirit, driven from his home by Christianization, takes revenge by murdering children, but is captured by a saint of God who teaches him the error of his ways, and now he works to protect the very children he once harmed. Christmas presents us with an opportunity to start again: the end of the year, the rebirth of the sun, the coming of a Messiah, or however you choose to interpret it. The Krampus, as well as his many other chain-bedecked repentant brethren, represent us: we messed up, we got another shot, and now we’re giving it our best. How can we demonize that?
The Krampus is good, though he is admittedly not safe. But I feel the same could be said about another figure who lives out in the wilderness, covered in fur, careening around the sky in a flying sleigh.
In short: the Krampus is a wild, unpredictable figure who works to preserve justice and peace by means of intimidating the superstitious.
He’s not the Lex Luthor to Santa’s Christmas Superman. He’s the Batman.
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