Old Night Business

His Arrival:

The great contemporary Muslim scholar Faisal Devji notes that the puzzled Western reaction to photos of Taliban warriors flanked by plastic flowers and Alpine backdrops is rather absurd, given our centuries of highly weird manger scenes with Savior and clan planted in snowdrift, frost, and ice. Under this ridiculous climate change in old Jerusalem lurks the old, dark Christmas. In the shadow of the Magi is the eldritch shape of the Krampus and his cohort, y’elder gods of Yule. Perhaps.

As the holidays fill with loping satyrs – especially in Barbary San Francisco – and you begin to see chocolate fetish and prancing demon cards on the lintel, Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas from Feral House will prove indispensable.

Wise guide to the Krampus constellation Al Ridenour follows the creature down the centuries to its present eruption in time. Early on, Krampus emerged from the Medieval Everyman mystery play. He was organically affixed as a companion to St. Nicholas in order to calm official suspicions of pagan atavism, an old and only partially-successful ploy of the Church. St. Nicholas himself was born in 347 in Turkey, tossed into jail by Diocletian (the emperor identified with the Luciferian digits 666) and later played a major role in shaping the Nicene Creed. After his death, Nicholas’ corpse was said to exude heavenly manna. The mad late Dark Ages romance The Golden Legend attributes the act of raising children from the dead to the Saint. This early connection to childhood and death slowly morphed into Nicholas’ later job of rewarding pious and scholarly youths among the educated classes for learning their catechism. Nikolaus of Myra’s latest transformation was engineered by the Coca-Cola Company, which gave him a fat sugary form dressed in red-and-white attire to match the product’s colors.

In the sphere of childhood discipline, punishment for transgression is more important than reward. This was meted out by St. Nicholas’ wild companion from the forest, eventually known as Krampus (The word is actually a noun, not a proper name, probably derived from the Old German kralle (claw) and krampn (brittle, lifeless); his krampusother names are simply toifi or toifel, meaning devil or literally ‘hopper’). Although safely grafted onto the Saint, childhood imagination has ingeniously recruited this brute by making him the more popular of the two and turning his sanctions into a dress-up revel where adults act like children. It was a brilliant move on the part of the spirit of Childhood, that great dialectic state which continues to defy adult supervision. The resulting Krampuskult has steadily grown since its major ascendency in Austria in the early part of the 20th century and now threatens farther shores.

The ritual Krampuslauf gathers masked and molty celebrants into marauding groups who then descend into town. They make a racket, menace the villagers, brighten up the dark season with their catcalls and torch-lit parade, and gain admittance to the family hearth to reward and punish. Similar to hazing or the gangland infraction, the military nature of Krampus’ home invasion is not lost on Germany and Austria. Santa Clauswitz and his horde wrestle tables from neat dining rooms, howl at cowering children, and visit chaos on the house for the holidays. There is more than a hint of the medieval craftsman amok in this romp: Krampus is a phantom of the Guilds returning home from exile in the cities.

Krampus is also intimately linked with the Postal Service. The Austo-Hungarian Empire was the first to use the mail to carry postcards. Krampus was the most popular seasonal spook, depicted as a kind of randy Pan-figure, long-tongued, leaping behind holiday-makers. This was city art and fin de siècle shtick: actually, he was far less urbane, more dirty, more crude and terrifying in his original country aspect. After this abortive attempt at decadent respectability, he reverted to his old rustic charm where he has remained ever since, but not without modern tension.

The book is superbly illustrated. The most striking images are the dim old photos showing very crude Krampusse from the early days, although there are some stunning masks from the middle period (especially the work of the great Sepp Lang from the 1950s, which gives the monster true Cameroon pizzazz). Recent developments show the crass influence of Hollywood, but resistance is strong from traditionalist Krampus cells leery of Lord of the Rings tat. But to each his own, and the dossier-like collection of images here will cater to all tastes.

His Revenge:

Tracking Krampus, Ridenour introduces us to other spirits and punisher-cousins with their own peculiar legends: the ‘Virgin Spring’ tale (as in Bergman’s film), the Black Knight, the androgyne Christkind, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), the witch Percht and many like fiends. Krampus’ forebear Knecht Ruprecht, another sinister arbitrator, is etymologically related to Puck-Robin, according to Grimm.

But this is all a winter ruse. It is not the Anglo Robin Goodfellow or Green Manish relics that Krampus recalls, but rather a more material class of being. Krampus is the feudal old man who becomes more distinct as the world again grows more primitive and its treasures less rare. He is the unruly bad-conscience of the Leisure Class come to judge the poor but also to make the hedge-fund manager, banker, and Ponzi scheme operator stand out more sharply in relief. At year’s end, Krampus judges the children of those who have floated the financial sector to the tune of their own destitution. He draws pneuma from our cruel nostalgia for better times that never were: cozy winter eve, calm snowfall on pines, the wide country beyond the city, drudge from an inhospitable twelvemonth…. In a final absurd contortion, Krampus is also the ghost of the Peasant War dead, those partisans beloved by Engels who found fertile soil in the Krampusliche Alpine-Tyrol regions.

There! Think it’s all fun and games, eh? There is no such thing as a joke. Happy Holidays and an ashen Krampus to all!


One of Al Ridenaur’s most compelling suggestions is that the idea of the modern survival of ancient rites from Pre-Christian times is a 19th century invention. Repeated ad infinitum and backed up by the medico-mystic theories of hacks like Jung, pagan survival owes more to advertising, J G Frazer and The Wicker Man than to a lived past. In other words, the Krampus genealogy given above is an utter fraud. The real deep, dark secret is that Krampus has his origins in woman. The demonic feminine Percht pre-dates him, a kind of Alpine-Italian carnival hybrid devoted to the weary seamstress, and Ridenour devotes much persuasive space to her. The great Evelyn Reed might’ve made much of this matriarchal dominatrix conspiring with her children in a man’s shape.

Power accepts only challenge or laughter, and both uneasily. Of these two possibilities, Power seems to have chosen parody, at least for the chill season. It has tried to tame it and has been able to incorporate several once-obscene melodies into sanitized carols. It has even allowed its great military and official uniforms to be portrayed as pompous rags slung over ambling bovine half-beasts (Alfred Jarry and Jean Rouch would get the Krampus). But Power is haunted by the fact that a temporary suspension of due respect may lead to even more lasting things than outright sedition. So the Krampus has two mothers: the hag and the lark.

As any bright adolescent knows, masks, fur and stuffy costumes are outrageous and funny. The solemn ordeals of spanking, busting into people’s homes, and reverence due to monsters of authority are pure parody at Krampustime. The old Saturnalia, which turned the world upside down for a single day, allowed the commoner fool to rant and rule, to take the piss out of even the most sacred and brutal overlords. The system of parody is more timeworn than the system of gods, more sacred than the calendar and the harvest song. Jokes must have been the first language around the cave-fire; perhaps the immemorial red-ochre prints on the wall are the dizzy impressions of primal great guffaws. And who made these impressions, the first art? The hands of women and children, naturally.

We should applaud the return of this trickster who so enjoys his contradictions. By them, he and she are known. Both the arbitrator and the joker of discipline, the sinister 19th Century Prussian ideas of education must have revived him from his mock-antique stupor. The very act of giving him a tradition makes him a part of the modern world, of our time of struggling-to-be which Gramsci called a time of monsters. Krampus is the Ancient as the joke upon the ancient, the boozy winter rite as a joke on the dark sacrifices of wartime prisoners, pranks as the serious business of night. And under it all? The inscrutable smile of a girl.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.