When we think of Christmas, we tend to veer towards the jolly traditions: decorating the tree or giving gifts. Maybe even caroling.
But what about the old tradition of dressing up as a furry winter demon named Krampus and roaming the streets?
Al Ridenour is the author of the forthcoming book “The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas” (Feral House). He runs Krampus Los Angeles along with his partner, Al Guerrero. For the past few years, Ridenour and Guerrero have put on a series of Krampus-themed events, including costumed Krampus runs and a Krampus play happening this Sunday in Pasadena.
But who is the real Krampus? Where did it come from? What does it look like? And what does Krampus have to do with pagan traditions of long ago?
Off-Ramp contributor Robert Garrova spoke with Krampus L.A.’s Al Ridenour to learn more about this Christmas boogeyman.
What does Krampus look like?
For a lot of people, the traditional Krampus is the Krampus you see on the Krampus postcards that circulated a little before WWI and past that in different forms — up until the 1960s even. And that is a devil with horns; he has a long tongue; he has a human devilish face; and he has a fur covered body; and the lower half of his body is a goat body. That’s the graphic that was used for that postcard. But it’s very different from the costumes you’ll find in Europe. Those vary a lot regionally [and] tend to look a little less dapper... The other ones look really bestial. Basically, it’s the same idea, a furry body with horns. But the masks can be very jagged and expressionistic. And it’s real animal hides they use too, so they’re thick, they get matted and wet in the snow... You can smell the animal that used to own the hide as they walk around. So they’re very rough.
What’s the Krampus origin story?
The origin is actually kind of unknown, but his mission — in fact his defining feature — is he’s a punisher of bad children. He accompanies St. Nicholas on St. Nicholas day, or actually more often on the eve of St. Nicholas day (December 5). And whereas St. Nicholas gives gifts to the good kids, he delivers the punishment for the bad kids. So he’s usually armed with switches or he has a bag to carry off children.
What are Krampus’ pagan roots?
It pretty directly flows out of the tradition in Alpine mythology; it has to do with a character called Frau Perchta or Lady Perchta who was a sort of ambivalent goddess figure who was quickly demonized by the church. And so she became sort of a queen of the witches. And this is going way back to the 1100s. And then she would lead an entourage on these nocturnal flights and rambles. And the entourage she followed, the demons or beasties were known as perchten. And there are still perchten runs as there are Krampus runs in Germany and Austria... in costumes that, to Americans, would look identical to Krampus costumes.
Is Krampus a darker side of Christmas that we’ve lost in the U.S.?
Oh absolutely. And that dark side... it’s still in the songs. I think Americans know it from “A Christmas Carol,” but that’s our only exposure. And even in the U.K., there’s still a tradition of Christmas ghost stories. So this time of year — the winter, the early part of the year — it was equivalent to Halloween. It was a time that spirits wandered, witches were afoot, it was actually even a time for werewolf transformations. So the Christmas that used to be known is not what we celebrate now.
Would you like to see some of those darker traditions come back?
Oh absolutely that’s our sinister agenda. It’s so funny because I hear so many people from alternative circles hating Christmas... And yet, they want to celebrate one way or another. They want the tradition. So I always tell them, “You don’t hate Christmas, you just don’t like how it’s celebrated.” And Christmas has changed so much over the years. Even since the 18, 1700s here, it’s changed a lot. It used to be an unruly street celebration more for adults. And then it moved indoors with the emphasis more on the family and gift-giving. But it used to be very rowdy... And I think that the Krampus is just a nice icon for all the parents that grew up in the punk rock era and they want to have a holiday for their kids but they feel weird about having their parents' holiday... It’s a certain way to play with the holiday and not give it up.