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Krampus: The Dark Side of Christmas

where: 
Central Europe
when: 
2015
The Story: 

Everyone is familiar with the joys of the holiday season, the decorations, the Christmas lights, the tree, the shopping frenzy, the family dinners, the idyllic Christmas movies and Mariah Carey's festive hit All I Want for Christmas. At first it looks like the merry end to the calendar year has no room or possibility to be frightening and to be fertile ground for the horror genre.

However, European folklore has several antagonists of the holiday season, the best known being not an enemy but a companion of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a 4th century Christian saint and a bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) who had many miracles attributed to him. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving. The best known legend of his life tells of a poor man who had three daughters for which he couldn’t afford a proper dowry in the times when being unmarried implied a woman was a prostitute. Hearing of the girls’ misfortune, Nicholas decided to help: late at night he secretly threw three purses filled with gold through the window of their house. Today Saint Nicholas is revered among many different Christian churches and is viewed as a patron saint of sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, children, brewers, etc. His feast day falls on December 6th which is less than three weeks before Christmas which isn’t surprising since he was the model for Santa Claus as we know him today (you know Santa Claus, the nice old fellow dressed in red on Coca-Cola commercials).

Saint Nick was believed to put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him so there’s a certain custom in his honor done on his feast day. In many European countries on December 5th in the evening children thoroughly clean one of their boots thoroughly and put them by the window so Saint Nick would leave gifts during the night, the gifts traditionally being chocolate and oranges. I personally remember scrubbing my boot in the bathroom sink, convinced I wouldn’t get anything if the thing wasn’t spotless. What worried me the most was how Nicholas would be able to open the window from the outside but hey… Who am I to question the miracles performed by saints…

One part of the gift would also be a golden-painted tree branch which signified the child had been good during the past year. But what if the child was bad? What if it didn’t deserve the sweets and the honorary golden branch but a darker stick (to be hit with, according to extremely strict parenting)? From the long, cold and bleak Alpine winters rose a figure of pure terror. Throughout Austria, Slovenia and Croatia Saint Nicholas is believed to have a demonic companion whose task is to punish the bad children. His name is Krampus (which comes from German word for claws) and his existence is rooted in pre-Christian Europe. This goat-like creature is believed to be the son of the Norse goddess of the underworld called Hel, which makes him the grandson of the mischievous god Loki. That being said, it’s no wonder Krampus turned out the way he did. He carries a basket in which he carries the bad children he kidnapped and chains you hope you won’t hear clanking by your window on a December night.

Nowadays the church is pushing away Krampus from the holiday season, slightly unaware that the roots of Christianity and the pagan beliefs that came before are too closely tangled. The attempt is also a shame because he fits in quite well: Krampus and the Christian faith both make a big deal out of fear-inducing, guilt-ridden sense of morality.

It is known that the demon comes only for the bad ones but that doesn’t make the folklore much less disturbing. First of all, he is a force truly evil who is a saint’s companion. Sure, Saint Nicholas gives rewards and the Krampus punishes but the punishment comes alongside the gifts. It isn’t about the fight between the darkness and light but they accompany one another and are unleashed onto the sleeping villages under the cover of the night. The chains carried by Krampus may signify his own slavery to Nicholas, which means he can only do his evil deeds Nicholas allows in order to discipline the children. That sounds logical until the idea becomes clearer: we are talking about a demonic slave wrapping kids with chains and kidnapping them. It is a topic that is a bit harder to digest but also a very fertile ground for horror films.

In 2013’s Krampus: The Christmas Devil directed by Jason Hull the creature takes out an armed search party with a long piece of chain and Saint Nicholas is the good guy although he calls a child a ‘’sniveling little shit’’. What makes the monster more interesting in this film are his magical power of hypnosis which reveal an interesting fact: Krampus, the big bad devil, is very fond of naughty naked women and bondage games.

The year 2015 has so far brought two movies portraying Krampus, with a third one coming up. Krampus: The Reckoning, directed by Robert Conway, features an animated version of the monster punishing the bad people by making them burst into flames. It also suggests the idea that Saint Nicholas had had the chains of civility forged to bind Krampus as his servant. In slavery the demon would be able to hurt only those who Nicholas chooses. Also, this movie might make you see yarn puppets in different light.

A Christmas Horror Story, directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan, brings the second Christmas fear of 2015. Starring William Shatner and beginning with a fairytale-ish intro, it looks a lot more promising than the previously mentioned movies. It is an omnibus whose plots might me a bit slow at times but it’s worth the watch for several reasons. First of all, you don’t hear a tiny pointy-eared elf call somebody a ‘’snow whore’’ every day. Other than that, Krampus appears as a huge growling snow demon turning the little elves into foul-mouthed zombies. In this take on the legend there are a lot more gore elements. A pastoral staff is used as weapon to fight the walking dead and Krampus is seen as the enemy of Christmas who battles Saint Nick. Again, the movie deals with child abduction which, in this case, isn’t physical but a demonic possession.

On December 4th, only one night before the legendary demon is believed to roam the snow-covered villages, the director Michael Dougherty is giving us another vicious holiday treat. His own Krampus stars Allison Tolman, Toni Collette and Adam Scott. This take on the story tells about a boy who has the worst Christmas ever due to the fact that he accidentally summoned a demon to his family home.

So, when we talk about the Christmas spirit, we also talk about it possibly being a malicious one. It hunts under the dark cover of the night and comes for bad little boys and girls who touch what they shouldn’t. Keep that in mind. Happy holidays!

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