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Krampus; Demons, Austrian Fascists, and the Death of Culture

Krampus, a demonic admixture of man and goat, has been a part of European Christmas celebrations dating back to pre-Christian times. By the mid 17th century, he had been fully incorporated into the Christian winter holiday tradition. Krampus is the malevolent companion of St. Nicholas, a remnant of european paganism that featured heavily in the Catholic countries of middle Europe, in countries such as Austria, Czech Republic,  Northern Italy, and Croatia. Sporting long, curled horns, thick black hair, a chain, and a long, pointy tongue – he’s a Devil like, evil presence. 

A child who’s been well behaved will be visited by St. Nicholas and given gifts, their misbehaved counterparts are whacked with a bunch of sticks and taken away to Krampus’ lair. In folklore, Krampus appears on December 5th, known as Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), to take away bad children in his sack. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in Krampus – Krampus festivals where men drink heavily and run through town, to Krampus Christmas parties, and even a stand alone film. Where was this new pop-culture Krampus born, and what does it say about how the holiday season has been co-opted and commercialised?

The commercialisation of Krampus began around 1890, when the Austrian government gave up control of the country’s postcard manufacturing. The industry boomed, and along with that boom came a host of Krampus cards, warning its recipients to be good. Most featured illustrations of the demon carrying away children. It was not long however before adult versions began to appear, featuring Krampus carrying off women, or in the role of a suitor. 

Krampus was actively suppressed by the Catholic Church – like most fun things. The Austrian Fascists – pre-1938 Nazi invasion were deeply Catholic, but nonetheless still very fascist – actively tried to remove Krampus from the holiday festivities. A December 1934 article in The New York Times read “Krampus Disliked in Fascist Austria”. Even until as recently as the 1950s, the Austrian government distributed pamphlets titles “Krampus is an evil man”.

Like nearly everything in our modern holiday traditions, Krampus exists now as a product – intellectual property to be bought and sold around the holidays. Though always present as a part of middle European holiday tradition, it was his introduction to the American public imagination that we can thank for what will come of all this. The Christmas holiday has always been a strange and uneasy balance between novelty and tradition. In this regard, the figure of Krampus is a god send for advertisers. Here we have the bad cop to Santa’s good cop – a merchandisable figure for the 13+ year olds who have little but scorn and sarcasm when it comes to the traditional Christmas they have come to know. Ironic for a character who is, at his core, anti-consumerist. 

Some take it further than this – dressing up as Krampus and taking part in old pagan rituals in the deep woods of middle Europe. For some, Krampus represents a return to the days of “wild men”, to the deep ties between man and nature that were lost as monotheisitic religion came to dominate the continent. The goat man who terrorises children is seen as a figure by which to bridge that gap between nature and man.

Krampus is Christmas in microcosm – heavily commercialised and marketed towards particular demographics, while also being a figure of real spiritual importance to a dwindling number. Given that the totalising nature of the market, it would appear that the latter will continue to dwindle, until Krampus goes the way of every formerly novel addition to Christmas. It will become tired and hackneyed, just another plastic figurine, part of the complete and wholesale sacrifice of the sacred and meaningful on the altar of profit. He is the “bah humbug” of days gone by – and just like “bah humbug” you can be sure that Krampus too will be commodified and co-opted to the same extent. 

Krampus is but one example of this. Look around you, everywhere, everything is being stripped of meaning so as to maximise profit. Culture is dead – at the very least it is dying.