A Brief History of Krampus in America
At this point, most people know Krampus. The mythical Christmas demon has become part of the mainstream in the United States, even spawning a major motion picture release in 2015. So how did Krampus escape his regional European origins to become an American phenomenon?
A Bit of Background
In case someone reading this article actually is unaware of Krampus, here's some basic background information. Krampus is a monster that's typically portrayed as a hairy demon with black or brown fur, cloven hooves, goat horns, a long, pointed tongue, and fangs. Quite often, he will have one human foot and one cloven hoof, as opposed to two hooves. Krampus punishes naughty children during the Christmas season, often traveling alongside dear old Saint Nick.
The Krampus myth dates back to pre-Germanic paganism, and he was originally the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the Underworld. Traditionally, he comes on December 5, along with Saint Nicholas. While Saint Nicholas puts candy in the shoes of good children and birch twigs in the shoes of the bad, Krampus will instead beat children with his birch branches. Sometimes he will even make these children disappear, stuffing them into a sack and taking them back to his lair to be tortured or eaten.
The following video from Buzzfeed Unsolved has some additional information on Krampus, in addition to just generally being fun.
Introduction to America
So Krampus is generally a horrifying guy and has likely scared many a child from his native regions into behaving. But why have so many people internationally, and particularly in America in recent years, embraced him as their Christmas spirit?
One man named Monte Beauchamp takes a lot of credit for this. Beauchamp says that after a collector showed him some Krampus postcards from the 19th and 20th centuries, he became interested in Krampus. He later published some of these in two different issues of his magazine Blab!, and then later two books in 2004 and 2010.
After the publication of his first book, a gallery director in Santa Monica, California approached Beauchamp and asked him to help coordinate an exhibit featuring artistic interpretations of the Krampus postcards. This initial show was so successful that Beauchamp says they became regular occurrences, with Beauchamp curating. Beauchamp says that ever since, he has also frequently been contacted by people wanting to license the Krampus images from his books.
A Lack of Christmas Cheer
But this still begs the question of why Krampus resonates so much with so many Americans, and why they have latched on to it now. Christopher Bickel of Dangerous Minds has an idea. He says,
"It's been theorized that the Krampus lore was brought over to the US by German-speaking immigrants, but never took hold on American shores due to anti-German sentiment over the first and second World Wars...but that Santa Claus did catch on because he made a great mascot for the Coca-Cola company. A devil who beats children isn't really going to be an effective soda pop pitchman. A jolly fat guy who hands out gifts? Perfect."
And yet, even though this explains why Krampus didn't take hold in the US earlier, it still isn't the whole story. Al Ridenour, author of The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, says, "The pattern is different in Europe, but in America, it would be the punk aesthetic and the sort of impudent internet culture of memes." He goes on:
"When images of the Krampus began circulating on the internet in the mid 2000s, that really set fire to it all. Those of us who came up in the punk milieu recognized the Krampus as the new savior of Christmas. We'd grown up chafing against this ideal of Christmas, a sentimental domestic idyll of family values and childhood wonder, and here we had this shocking figure who celebrated the holiday by beating children! He seemed to perfectly embody the rebellion we felt."
Bickel expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "Something about this Christmas demon is starting to resonate with Americans. Perhaps it's the fact that he represents the antidote to the unrestrained American sense of entitlement?"
The General Consensus
Most analyses seem to agree on the reason so many Americans love Krampus. Here's a small sampling of some conclusions writers have come to when trying to figure out the Krampus phenomenon.
- Sonia Halback, on a blog entry on The Huffington Post: "It's difficult to say exactly why the intrigue surrounding Krampus has skyrocketed. Perhaps for a generation that grew up with Harry Potter and a pop culture that's always on the lookout for the next classic fantasy creature to reinvent (e.g. vampires, elves, zombies) the time is finally right for this darker Christmas beast to emerge."
- Peter Jelavich, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore: "Modern Krampus celebrations represent Halloween for adults...these days, Krampus is the fun character."
- Kerry Sullivan, Ancient-Origins.net: "Krampus' rise in America has mirrored a rise in the number of people who bemoan that the tradition has become too commercialized."
So there we have it. The primary reason Americans seemed to have latched on to the Krampus tradition is a dissatisfaction with the commercialization of the Christmas season, as well as being sick of the holly jolly cheer that has been pushed on them since childhood. It's a perfect combination of sentiment for Krampus to take over.
So how did Krampus and Krampus-related events spread through America? Some have attributed the ease of organizing large events, such as Krampus runs, through social media as the vehicle for spreading the word. And the word has certainly been effectively spread.
In 2010, Americanized versions of Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, were organized in Columbia, South Carolina and Portland, Oregon. By 2014, over 30 different Krampus celebrations were being held across the US. Some of these took place on December 5, the traditional date of Krampusnacht, while others took place on a date close to it.
Of course, not everyone is pleased with Krampus' invasion of Christmas. I feel one instance worth mentioning is one that occurred nearby to me in 2015, which was no doubt influenced by the movie that came out that year. In an article dated December 5, 2015, it was reported that at a parade that had occurred the night before in Houma, Louisiana, some marchers dressed as Krampus had unexpectedly - only to the parade-goers, as the marchers were registered as part of the parade - made an appearance. This upset a lot of people who expected traditional Christmas fare. I think the people quoted in this article overreacted, but I'll let everyone make their own individual judgments.
And despite the negative reactions to this particular parade, there is now a Krewe of Krampus in New Orleans that parades in December, and appears at other events throughout the year. They hand out lumps of coal and other Krampus-related throws. The coal is dark for the naughty children and gold for the nice.
It just goes to show that Krampus has been fully embraced by a population of Americans. For now at least, it appears that naughty children have a bit more to fear than some coal in their stockings.