I first heard of Krampus when I lived in Vienna, Austria a few years ago. As the cheery Christmas season approached, and as I happily visited Christmas markets and wondered about Viennese traditions, the family I lived with told me with great seriousness of a demonic horned figure who terrified children into being “good” throughout the year, punishing the “naughty” ones by filling their stockings with coal and ignoring the “good” ones completely. They also described to me the annual Krampus parade in their neighbourhood, which they had stopped attending due to a bottle being drunkenly hurled at a man’s face and breaking his teeth. Men dress up as Krampus at these parades and drink heavily, and their costume descriptions were downright frightening.
In light of director Michael Doughtery’s upcoming dark comedy Krampus opening Friday, December 4, here is some more in-depth information regarding your new favourite nightmarish Christmastime figure.
A polar opposite of our familiar round-bellied, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus who bestows all children—naughty and nice—with gifts, Krampus is an anthropomorphic terror with hooves and a long, pointy tongue and, in my humble opinion, psychotic eyes. His precise origins are unknown. However, in the 17th century he became paired with St. Nicholas in winter celebrations, and has enjoyed a permanent place in Austrian Christmas traditions ever since. The idea of scaring children into being good is a method certainly frowned upon in our society, but my host family in Vienna spoke easily and comfortably of Krampus, as he is so completely ingrained in their traditions.
While December 6 is an Alpine day for St. Nicholas to deliver presents to children who have been good, the evening of December 5 is known as Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), when Krampus walks the streets and visits homes; this is also often the date of the aforementioned parades/“celebrations.” Krampus’ punishing of children is not limited to coal in their stockings—oh no, he doesn’t stop there: he carries around chains to frighten children even more; sometimes he carries birch branches to whip children who haven’t been good; and sometimes he brings along a sack to carry bad children away to eat, drown or take down to Hell. It is obvious that Krampus takes great delight in his terrifying, torturing and banishing of children, and one must wonder indeed why he has any children to visit anymore, as one would think that every last child in Austria would toe the line all year, every year, in order to avoid the coal, birch branches and the ominous sack. (But then no more Krampus would also take away the much-beloved yearly event of dressing up as Krampus, drinking Schnapps and throwing bottles, so there’s that.)
With all this in mind, it is with true eagerness that I await Krampus’ release this Friday. What a thrill it will be to see this folkloric character brought to life on the big screen. Hopefully, Doughtery has found a way to balance Krampus’ severity with some comedy, but not too much. Knowing that Adam Scott and Toni Collette are among the starring actors in this film, I have faith that Krampus won’t end up a parody of its namesake, properly evoking darkness and fear, while giving the audience some relief through clever humour.
If you live in the Toronto area, you should absolutely pop over to Kitchener this Saturday, December 5 from 6:00 p.m. until midnight, where Krampus himself will be hanging out in Krampus Village. After visiting this demon in the flesh and mentally scarring your children, you can cheerily pick up some gifts for the “goblins” in your life. A list of Krampus celebrations in other places in Canada and the U.S. can be found at krampus.com.