Ho, Ho, Hell

12.05.14 10:45 AM ET

Meet Krampus, the Seriously Bad Santa

The demonic ‘anti-Santa’ enjoys an unlikely renaissance as we learn to embrace our inner pagan.

Here’s a question for you. Santa determines who’s been naughty or nice. To the nice ones, he gives presents. What does he do to the naughty ones?

Answer: he gives them over to Krampus, the demonic anti-Santa whose popularity is suddenly surging thanks to the wonderful irony machine that is the Internet.

Krampus is for real—in the literary sense, of course, dating back as long as the contemporary Santa Claus (which actually isn’t that long). Mostly, Krampus celebrations—which take every year on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day—are just good fun. But a closer look reminds us how little Christ there really is in Christmas.

Krampus’s name comes from the German word krampen, or claw, and he indeed comes complete with claws, hooves, horns, and various demonic accouterments. His origins are unclear—he emerges out of Alpine folklore, though some accounts have him connected to the Norse goddess Hel, queen of the dead. The character emerges in popular culture as soon as popular culture begins; he’s found in 19th century European holiday cards, for example.

More recently, Krampus has been celebrated in Europe with wild parades—this one from Austria in 2010 is particularly festive—with revelers dressed as the god marching through the streets and terrifying children (for pretend usually, but sometimes for real). In the last few years, the character has begun to catch on in America, even turning up on a recent episode of American Dad.

It’s easy to see the appeal for jaded urbanites sick of treacly, major-chord holiday songs and the forced cheerfulness of the season. (Incidentally, that story that suicides spike during Christmastime is, alas, a myth.) Demonic figures terrifying children—and more than terrifying; the myth has him throwing kids into cold rivers, or just eating them alive—are the perfect antidote to Santa, Rudolf, and Mariah Carey.

But like much surrounding Christmas—the druidic tree, the magical mistletoe plant—the Krampus myth, like that of Santa himself, hearkens back to a much older time, and deeper levels of the human psyche.

Krampus, obviously, is yet another manifestation of the “Horned God,” a term some anthropologists use to refer to a cluster of deities venerated in pre-Christian religions, and then demonized, quite literally, by Christianity. The god with horns—half human, half beast—is commonplace throughout the ancient Near East. Hathor in Egypt; Moloch in Canaan; even the Biblical Golden Calf may refer to actual bull/cow/deity worship prevalent in the region. Most familiar, perhaps, is the Roman god Pan, associated with rural communities—the word “pagan” basically means “what people in the country do.”

The worship of some of these deities appears to have included orgiastic rituals: music, wine, sex. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with the ascetic early Christians. “Put to death therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry,” quoth Colossians 3:5. The horned God was, often, all of these things. He was the embodiment of the animal parts of ourselves—precisely the parts the Greek-influenced, spiritually-minded Christians sought to suppress.

And so, the horned god became Satan—and others in his demonic retinue. In a way, this wasn’t entirely incorrect. These sexual, earthy, animal-human deities really were opposed to everything the early Christians venerated as holy. They’re not “evil” objectively, of course, but they are indeed evil within the value system of early Christianity.

Beginning in 1933, with Margaret Murray’s influential book The God of the Witches, neo-Pagans began re-appropriating the “horned god,” a term Murray coined. As you might expect, the horned god of Wicca is best described as “inspired by” the historical sources; much of Wicca is simply made up.

But not all of it. Krampus is an outstanding example of a pagan motif that just won’t go away. Suppressed, banned, scorned—it seems to speak to something within the human mind (or soul, if you like) that is irrepressible. We all feel lust; we all fear the unknown; and especially in this fiery season of American racial injustice, we all know that humans are capable of evil. Krampus makes manifest the shadow sides of human nature that Christianity seeks to repress.

In fact, as is well known, Christian holidays are filled with these ancient religious symbols. Throughout history, the Christmas tree was regarded as pagan (a “heathen tradition” said Oliver Cromwell). Germans made the tradition popular, but it only became mainstreamed in Anglo-American culture after Queen Victoria posed for a Christmas portrait in front of one—with her German-born husband, Albert. Many pious Christians still deride the tree today.

Likewise the Yule log: a symbol of the winter solstice.

Likewise Halloween, of course.

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And likewise the Easter bunny, a bizarre pagan myth if ever one there was. The name Easter may, or may not, be derived from the Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar—the source of the Hebrew name Esther. Or it may be derived from the northern goddess Eostre, whose symbol is a rabbit and whose festival is celebrated by the exchange of eggs. Or, who knows? None of the above.

And so on. It’s remarkable, really, that these primal symbols persist in the present day, despite centuries of suppression.

Ironically, such symbols may today resonate with the skeptical and atheist among us, precisely because they are transparently mythical, and make no claims to truth. Krampus parades are religious myth divorced from religious truth-claims. They are liberated from any of the ridiculous claims of facticity that make religion seem so stupid—the Earth is really 6,000 years old, Jesus really walked on water—and thus liberated to speak to the pre-rational aspects of ourselves often reserved for books like Where the Wild Things Are. Krampus is the best of myth, without the worst of religion.

On the surface, Krampus is a great antidote to the Rockettes and Black Friday. But beneath the surface, it is an even stronger one. Repressing our instincts doesn’t lead to wisdom, just as wisely expressing them doesn’t lead to chaos. Here’s an idea. As the nights grow longer and the days grow cold, let’s ditch the stocking stuffers, and express our inner Krampus.