A (Belated) Merry Krampus

Not Santa

Outside my bedroom window, flickering like a cheap motel sign, sits my neighbor’s neon Santa, silently signing “Ho,” “Ho Ho,” “Ho Ho Ho,” each flash adding another “Ho” like it’s a new idea or something.  The image of Santa—Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas—reigns supreme from November to January, or, in Winona, MN, from late August to January. 

But what about Krampus?  Apparently, Krampus—who, like Santa, goes by many names—was once, more benignly, Santa’s sidekick, “a devil-like figure who drove away evil spirits during the Christian holiday season.”  But more often, he was Santa’s bad cop.  Santa rewarded the good children with presents, while Krampus whipped and punished the bad ones—or, in a calculated bit of symmetry, Santa carried presents in his sack, while Krampus carried an empty sack, not to steal presents a la The Grinch but rather to carry off bad children for his supper. 

I never heard of Krampus until two days ago.  And I don’t celebrate Christmas, so I don’t have a horse in this race anyway.  But I’ve been thinking about Krampus.  (I also had a dream about him, but my stomach hurt when I went to bed, so I suspect it was my unconscious telegraphing the word “cramps.”)   I’m concerned about what seems to be the disappearance of Krampus.  Santa has come to dominate the season with a red, velvet fist, the sole survivor of a symbolic vanishing twin syndrome.  But  Santa’s ascendancy seems directly tied to the overall criticisms of saccharine sanctimony and crass commercialism endemic to the season. 

Now, I’m not advocating an American Krampus renaissance, or a full on Krampus parade as in Graz, Austria, below (warning: scary!)

Too many of the images are startling or sadistic, a few border on pedophilia, and a handful are all three:

Wrong for so many reasons

Clearly, adults should not terrorize their children into petrified obedience.  When I posted a Krampus link on Facebook yesterday, two friends, Abbie and Johannes —not surprisingly, of Eastern European and Austrian origin, respectively—had indeed heard of Krampus, and they felt their childhood shivers return at the sight of him.  But the appropriate comparison for me is to Andrew Delbanco’s book  and idea of “the Death of Satan”: not the need to sow fear, as much as the metaphorical need to embody, rather than rationalize or ironize, the very idea of evil. Delbanco worries that the death of Satan—or, I’ll add, his Christmas collector’s edition, Krampus—is a kind of death of metaphor itself, and that convincing the world that he is gone—whether through secular humanism’s intellectual embarrassment or Christian fundamentalism’s demonizing of others rather than looking inward to find evil—would indeed be Satan’s greatest trick of all.  Ridding the world of Krampus does not purge the world of what he represents.  As that other great Pagan-derived holiday, Halloween, shows, great good can come from receiving, and even identifying with, the bad.

But mostly, I fear that without Krampus, the yang to his yin, the bitter to his sweet, Santa Claus has had to be both the good cop and the bad cop in one:

“He knows when you are sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake

He knows if you’ve been bad or good…”

Does any verse strike more fear in the hearts of American children?  Do we want Santa to embody Foucault’s Panopticon, the totalitarian, police state?  When one figure embodies both reward and punishment, carrots and sticks, it does not just effect the death of Satan.  It also produces a kind of death of Santa, just a little.   Ho ho ho. 

Time: a cool 35 minutes.  Call me Half-hour Man today.

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9 thoughts on “A (Belated) Merry Krampus

  1. Johannes says:

    Oh no! I’m reminded of a Hagar the Horrible comic, where Helga is frantically cooking, and her daughter asks what’s wrong–Helga’s answer: “It’s happened! Hagar is now eating faster than I can cook!” I’m still pondering a response to a previous blog entry, and now there’s already a new one I need to comment on!! :) But it does feel very cool to be mentioned in a blog!! (Oh, btw, my origin is German, and not Austrian [even though I vastly prefer Austrian literature, of course!].)

    I was only able to watch a minute of the Krampuslauf video. I think I’m pretty glad I didn’t continue watching. This isn’t quite thought out, but I’m wanting to say something like, “This whole Krampus tradition is NOT a form of sensibly dealing with/coming to terms/expressing the ‘shadow’ (a la Jung), but feels more like a horrific regression (cf. “Dialectic of Enlightenment”?).”

    Two timely Calvin and Hobbes comics:

    I have a feeling I’ll want to comment more here. Again, thank you for this blog!

    –Johannes

  2. Jaime B. says:

    “Clearly, adults should not terrorize their children into petrified obedience.”

    We shouldn’t? Hmm… My half-hearted attempt at comedy aside, I see this as just another instance in which modern American society is becoming more child-centered. Today’s parents and parenting experts are all about feelings, building self-confidence and self-esteem, making sure our kids feel safe and loved and have wonderfully intact psyches.

    In so doing, we’ve sanitized all the old tales that were meant to, yes, scare our kids into behaving for one reason or another. Ring around the rosey loses the child mortality. Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s Fairy Tales turn into feel-good Disney movies. And yet, somehow while we’re going out of our way to protect the children from all of the bad things in the world, we’re exposing them to more violent images than ever before.

    Of course I have no real point. I just find the entire phenomenon interesting.

  3. Abbie says:

    Desperately wanting to make a highly inappropriate comment about the cheap motel lights and being a Half Hour Man. Maybe when I graduate.

    More on point, I’m not sure the new Santa, who internalized St. Nikolaus and Krampusz, is so far from the evil-within model. He doesn’t have to be the totalitarian winter dictator, but a more realistic representation of the moral ambiguity we, as fallen souls, embody. My own religious confusion and struggles aside, (as well as my distaste for Christmas in general but ESPECIALLY Krampusz) I really loved this entry.

  4. jkavadlo says:

    Johannes: I knew you were German. Something in a recent comment made me second guess it. Sorry, I should know that. But you’re right–this is a Jungian Shadow Santa or Freudian Return of the Repressed-style analysis. A post-Enlightenment reading would be very different. Great comics, too.

    One thing I’ve learned in this first month of blogging is that when I write the post, I feel single-minded and in control. But once it’s done, or people comment, I’m all relativist and mercurial, ready to cede any point. So I read your comment and thought, Yes, it’s for the best that children aren’t still subjected to this kind of horror.

    Then I read Jaime’s comment (thanks for posting, Jaime!) and thought, No, we need to return to our dark fairy tales and stop sanitizing children’s folklore. More Gaiman/ Selig/Burton. Turns out I’m a wishy-washy Replier. You can both be right on this.

    Abbie, glad you liked the post. It’s a good reminder that the Good Cop/ Bad Cop routine disguises the fact that both cops are really on the same side. For all the toys and candy canes, Santa, with or without Krampus (but especially with, I guess) is really a powerful behavior modification ploy. PS: Good thing you didn’t make that joke :)

  5. Johannes says:

    “One thing I’ve learned in this first month of blogging is that when I write the post, I feel single-minded and in control. But once it’s done, or people comment, I’m all relativist and mercurial, ready to cede any point.”

    I think that experience is absolutely in line with the process/Zen approach. As you’re writing, there is nothing else–but then there is no need or desire “to hold on to a view,” dogmatize; instead, the flow/process continues anew with every response. To use one of Johannes’s favorite words, it sounds as if there’s something very authentic about what’s happening here.

  6. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks, Johannes. Authentic certainly sounds better than wishy-washy.

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