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How the Krampus stole Christmas Christian associations are fading into darkness

A Krampus parade in Munich (PETER KNEFFEL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

A Krampus parade in Munich (PETER KNEFFEL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)


December 6, 2023   6 mins

The Christmas lights switch-on in my town last weekend was epic. Streets were blocked off, the market square was filled with funfair rides, and stalls selling hog roast and hot-dogs, glowsticks, candyfloss and wreaths.

The countdown was MC’d by a man in a huge top hat and Santa. The lights went on, everyone cheered, and the season of tinsel, gluttony and shopping was declared opened. Looking around the packed square, I marvelled at how many of its details seemed both ancient and modern: at once a millennia-old winter feast, and also a celebration of manufacturing, power generation, and material abundance.

But if, the following morning, my local church celebrated the older version of that festival, by lighting a candle on the Advent wreath, the European tradition of winter excess is older even than Christianity. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in December, and then the feast of Sol Invictus on the winter solstice. December 25 was also the birthday of Mithras, god of light and loyalty. Beyond the reach of Rome, Germanic and Celtic societies celebrated Yule, also linked to the solstice, by bringing evergreen foliage into homes and sacrificing to Odin’s Wild Hunt.

When Christmas Day was officially designated under Constantine in 336AD, it absorbed many pre-Christian traditions, including evergreen decorations, the Yule log along with the light and feasting. This all makes sense: the weather is miserable at this time of year, it gets dark at 4pm, and everyone needs a pick-me-up. So, in much the same spirit, my Saturday evening the market square also contained the ancient keynotes for a winter warmer: light, calories, and the local community. Despite the near-total absence of Christian religious elements, the Saturday evening in my market square did contain a winter godling, of sorts: Santa Claus.

His origins lie with St Nicholas, whose day is celebrated today. Said to have been a Turkish monk, he lived around a century before Constantine gave us Christmas Day and was renowned for his generosity. By the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe: the patron of Russia and Greece. And though the veneration of saints largely vanished from Protestant countries after the Reformation, St Nicholas survived.

In keeping with the syncretic quality of Europe’s winter festivals, too, St Nick retained a pagan edge: a sidekick called the Krampus, a brown, horned monster who brandishes a birch whip and threatens misbehaving children during the Advent season. On Krampusnacht, or Krampus Eve, the creature frightens children into good behaviour and cities across central Europe still host a “Krampuslauf” the evening before St Nicholas’ Day: a parade in which participants dress as horned demons, and try to scare the crowd.

St Nicholas travelled to New York as “Sinterklaas”, with Dutch migrants in the 17th and 18th centuries. There, fittingly for the new world, he made a fresh start. He was soon on his way to the cheery modern persona first crystallised in the 1822 poem, The Night Before Christmas, in which now-canonical features of Santa first came together: the flying sleigh, the jolliness, the reindeer names, and the sack of toys. His reboot included leaving the Krampus behind, in the Old World’s cultural hinterland. That entity’s menacing, disciplinary role survives for American Santa only in vestigial form, as the “naughty or nice” list.

The year before Clement C. Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas for his six children, Michael Faraday invented the electric motor, setting (literally) in motion much of the world we know today. Just few years later, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. In other words: American Santa arrived concurrently with, and inextricably from, what Marshall McLuhan dubbed the Electric Age. Electric Santa also coincided with an American 19th century of breakneck industrialisation: an age of innovation and infrastructure-building, real-terms wage growth of 40%, new material abundance, and also the emergence of vast inequality: grinding poverty for many, against the Olympian wealth of the Gilded Age “robber barons”.

But it was the 20th century that was, par excellence, the age of Electric Santa: the now-familiar icon of cost-free consumer abundance, underwritten by flourishing (and usually, implicitly, American) industry. Even his red-and-white livery is, famously, a byproduct of that industrial powerhouse’s pervasive cultural reach and economic dominance: the result of a 1931 branding exercise by Coca-Cola. This version of Santa has reigned for my lifetime to date, as dominant godling for winter celebrations, whether in America, Europe, or even further afield.

A benevolent patriarch, the mythic Electric Santa heads a workshop full of industrious elves, who toil away all year to make each child the material goods he or she most desires. These magical products are then delivered frictionlessly, at no cost, as a blessing of the festive season. It’s hard to think of a more perfect godling for the idealised era of industrial abundance and rising living standards — not to mention McLuhan’s Electric Age collapse of physical distance. How else is Santa to get all round the whole world in one night?

But as we exit the industrial age for a digital future, there are signs that the runners may be coming off Santa’s sleigh. Today, Electric Santa exists in the real world, at the head of a team of largely-invisible elves who frictionlessly delivers to us anything we could possibly ask for. Except his name is Jeff Bezos, and the reality is less apple-cheeked old man with ruddy-faced elves spreading cheer, than factory slavery, monopolistic price-gouging, and warehouse workers peeing in bottles to avoid incensing the algorithm.

Under these conditions, perhaps it’s no surprise to find more sinister festive icons coming to life. But now the disciplinary role isn’t taken by the horned Krampus demon, but by an altogether more modern, smiling figure: the Elf on the Shelf. These effigies, which spawn a Mumsnet hate thread every Christmas, come with a story about how elves visit children in December, then report back to Santa on who has been naughty or nice. Behind this lurks an edge of what the novelist Ewan Morrison calls “cute authoritarianism”: the technocratic surveillance tyranny that governs an Amazon warehouse, but softened with a layer of cuddliness.

If the Elf isn’t literal enough, parents can take a still more direct inspiration from Santa Bezos, and install an Elf Cam in their kids’ bedroom. Forget being terrified into good behaviour by Krampusnacht: today Santa’s disciplinary other compels obedience by training kids to internalise a sense of being continually watched.

McLuhan saw this coming, too. For him the Electric Age was less about the spread of light, than the collapse of distance into one planetary “global village”. This term has been widely adopted by activists as a positive development, signalling worldwide solidarity. But contra the utopians, McLuhan’s vision was much more ambivalent. For him, mass communications turning the whole planet into a single community was less about retrieving the medieval village as a positive emblem of community, than of suffocating transparency: 360-degree surveillance, petty gossip, and endless power-games.

McLuhan died in 1980, before mass adoption of the technology that would realise his predicted “global village”: the internet. But today we live in a world of all-ways surveillance, public moral shaming, and “nudge” governance, whose ideal emblem is less Electric Santa than the cute-authoritarian Elf on the Shelf. Meanwhile, jolly abundance has become, in the digital age, post-industrial anomie papered over by planetary labour arbitrage and global supply chains. Under this new order, presided over by Santa Bezos, purchasers of Christmas cards may find the pack contains a desperate plea from the “elves”: in reality, slave labourers in a Chinese prison.

So perhaps it’s not so strange to find Santa evolving again. Electric Santa absorbed the Krampus, reducing his menacing disciplinary role to a blacklist – but more recently, McLuhan’s “global village” has allowed symbols to travel frictionlessly. And one consequence has been that the Krampus has belatedly followed Sinterklaas across the Atlantic, after Krampus images began circulating on the internet in the 2000s, inspiring Krampus parades in numerous American cities. This time, though, the tables are turned. Instead of becoming a vestigial trace of Santa, this time Santa is a vestigial trace of the Krampus, who has evolved into what the Washington Post recently called “a demonic anti-Santa”.

Even as the post-industrial West grapples with stagnation, polycrisis, and the looming spectre of climate change, global supply chains have made Santa’s workshop a reality – after a fashion. But it’s already clear this comes with costs, as well as a side-order of digital authoritarianism. Against this, does it still make sense to venerate a winter godling whose key role is manufacturing and distributing consumer goods? Perhaps not.

But that’s no reason to abandon winter feasting. The weather is still cold and wet, and it still gets dark at 4pm. The Christian associations may be fading, but the ancient need for a winter feast is as strong as ever. And festivals mean godlings. So while it’s perhaps no wonder the previously jolly electric Santa is taking on darker colouring, maybe this is for the best. I’d rather have the Krampus than a Santa Bezos elf-cam.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago

All true…and yet:
We each of us have it within our power to define what the Winter festival means to us and to our young families. On Sunday, I took my 6 year old to the church at the local monastery and we celebrated the first Sunday in advent together with the remaining community of Catholics (including a surprising number of young people). Because it was cold, the mass was held in the crypt, and there were Gregorian chants. She’s now looking forward to seeing all four candles ablaze.
That same day, we decorated the house for Christmas. Pride of place is reserved for our nativity – my daughter had the honour of arranging the scene to her taste.
This morning, she came down the stairs to find two toy horses in her shoe, a visit from the ‘real’ St Nicolas. Father Christmas, faithful servant of the Baby Jesus, will supplement the offerings on the morning of the 25th.
No Electric Santas needed.

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

“Remaining”. That’s the operative word here, isn’t it? As a practicing catholic, in a nominally catholic county, I’d be lying if I said that congregations weren’t dwindling, or ageing. Yes, there are children at mass, but things are nothing like what they were, even in my own childhood.
So, whither Christianity? Maybe it will undergo some sort of revival, but right now is difficult to see where the impetus for that might come from. Maybe a fate similar to Zoroastrianism awaits. It was once the official religion of the mighty Persian empire, now its fires are literally kept alight by a few thousand adherents. …

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

I’ve had those same thoughts. Yet I find comfort in the gospel. Those few huddles disciples were all Christ had left. Even of those few, some betrayed him thrice before the c**k crowed.
Yet if the word of God is true – and I believe it to be so – then it must fill the world – at the latest when JC stars in the sequel.

mike otter
mike otter
5 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

I expect if humans carry on inching toward enlightenment that Abrahamic religions will indeed fade – they may well end up being regulated like recreational marijuana or join druidism, zoroastrianism and bdsm as minority interests for consenting adults ( Assuming that Christians, Jews and Muslims CAN be safe and sane – that is a big ask- the murder of Rabin by a crazed charadim derailed the Oslo accords and the Iran/Hamas/Labour outrages on 7/10/23 stimied the Israel-KSA “normalisation” treaty due later that month)

Tom D
Tom D
5 months ago
Reply to  mike otter

You insult Zoroastrianism for no reason. And evidence shows that most Christians, Jews and Muslims are safe and sane (though admittedly there is more of a problem with Islam than the other two).

Barbara Manson
Barbara Manson
5 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

The embers of authentic Christianity are there. Seek and you shall find.
Traditional Catholicism thrives in pockets around the world, where Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are expressed in the timeless wisdom of the ancient liturgy. Old, young, and in-between find meaning and peace there. Blessed Advent to all.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  Barbara Manson

The Question of what constitutes the ‘church’ in any age is a riddle known only to God. What are states and nations, kings and emperors to Him? What are the mutitudes of ‘cultural’ christians and established churches if the salt has lost its savour? Beware lest ye presume to number Israel. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart”.
Writers like Ms Harrington see Christianity as a sociological phenomenon vindicated or invalidated by its democratic usefullness when it is a supernatural phenomenon if it is anything at all.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
5 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

I am not a Catholic but am interested in all forms of Christianity. At the moment there are supposed to be 1.5 billion Catholics in 2.4 billion Christians (in the world) and I think that Catholicism is becoming more popular.
I have always believed that Catholic churches are prettier or more ostentatious than Protestant churches and this is why they are so important in poor countries, where the people live dreary lives and need the church to make them feel better in life. Ireland, say, is not a poor country and people will get their brightness by spending money – a very shallow way of receiving a spiritual uplift. But the positive side of things is that an ever-ageing congregation can be expected with a similarly ageing population.
Our church has fallen into the trap of spending most of its resources on trying to attract young people – guitar-playing vicars, screens in the aisles instead of hymn books, trendy messages in the services. This has frightened away the old stalwarts (and their contributions) because the vicars don’t play well and the old people can’t see the screens. Do not go in this direction!!!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Beautiful.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
5 months ago

Another good article from one of UnHerd’s best writers.

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
5 months ago

“I’d rather have the Krampus than a Santa Bezos elf-cam.”
Given that the choice seems to be between neo-paganism on the one hand and paleo-paganism on the other, things looks pretty bleak, this midwinter, and for midwinters to come.
Merry Christmas anyway!

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
5 months ago
Reply to  Pat Davers

I grew up with Krampus, also called ‘Knecht Ruprecht’, who was dressed in dark brown ragged clothes with a hood, dragging a chain behind him. He always entered our class room behind beautiful St.Nikolaus, dressed in Bishop’s robes. He carried a dark jute sack, very unlike St.Nikolaus’ bright red one, which was filled with little goodies. Then St. Nikolaus read from his golden book the good and bad deeds of every child and each time he mentioned a bad deed, Krampus rattled his chain and threatened to put the naughty child in his sack, to the horror of all the other children. Nowadays it would be probably called child abuse
 But to me it was fun and thrillingly creepy, and part of the Advent season. It also had a profound effect on bullish little menaces in the school yard, who tried to behave impeccably weeks before the event.

Last edited 5 months ago by Stephanie Surface
Michael Johnston
Michael Johnston
5 months ago

A fascinating piece from my favourite Unherd writer. Just one error to correct – St Nicholas was a contemporary of Constantine. He was imprisoned by Diocletian and released by Constantine. He may have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, where he is reputed to have had fisticuffs with Bishop Arius following a dispute about the divinity of Christ. That account may be a late addition to his legend, however.

Tom D
Tom D
5 months ago

I think Arius was a presbyter (priest), not a bishop. The fisticuffs story likely never happened, it dates from the 14th century,

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago

And it goes without saying that Saint NIcholas was not ‘Turkish’, as the writer says.
The ethnonym ‘Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ isn’t attested until at least 500 years after St Nicholas was born in Myra, in Greek Lycia in AD 270.
Furthermore, the ‘Turks’ didn’t occupy that part of Asia minor until after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and didnt form an ethnic majority until after the expulsion of the ethic Greeks in the 1920’s.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Amos
Peter Churcher
Peter Churcher
5 months ago

Interesting article as always but a clarification if I may: Dec 25th was the date of Christmas for centuries before it was adopted by pagan traditions, incl Mythranism. We have no evidence before the 4th century that pagans celebrated on the 25th, suggesting that they copied Christianity rather than the other way around. Although it is true that the church has incorporated external traditions, this has always been to point people to Jesus – the light of the world. Perhaps it is time we ceased focusing on the trappings – be they Krampus, Santa or Bezos – and instead turned again to the reason for the season.

Tom D
Tom D
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Churcher

Yes, Mythranism was likely a pagan knockoff of Christianity.

David Jennings
David Jennings
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Churcher

Indeed, and the specific 25th of December date seems to have been chosen as it is nine months after March 25–the date of the Annunciation (naturally!), the Spring Equinox, often Good Friday (including in 1300 when Dante starts his journey into Hell on March 25), and, according to ancient Jewish and Christian tradition, the day God spoke the cosmos into existence. Under the Julian calendar New Year’s Day was celebrated though the West (up to the mid-1700s) on March 25. Which is why the well-meaning Christian debate of changing the date of Christmas to avoid the commercialization would be a mistake, given the (pregnant) symbolism of the date.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  David Jennings

Thank you for this. Your concise post has linked together a number of loose threads and ideas of which I have been struggling to find the common denominator for quite a long time.
The Christian basis of our common life seems to turn up, like the spolia of ages past, in our everyday existence. Praise be to God.

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
5 months ago

  I found myself mentally paralleling Mary Harrington’s  excellent tracking of the changing face of winter ritual with a book by the learned catholic, Karen Armstrong, The History of God. If I remember rightly, Armstrong’s hypothesis was that, over the thousands of years of man’s development, God has always presented himself to human consciousness in a form that would be appropriate for the current stage of evolution. In other words, in whatever form we’d be predisposed to accept him at the time, that’s how he’d come. Though this book was written before  â€˜New Age’ thinking had really gained traction, it might not have precluded the concept of God as an ultimate energy field of differing vibrations and infinite possibility. Yet, as idiotic or smart as that latter concept sounds, whilst Christianity per se may be fading, a strong spiritual sense still endures for many. And I still feel compelled to concur with Mary’s statement that ‘the ancient need for a winter feast is as strong as ever. And festivals mean godlings.’ As Jung claimed, ritual is important.
   Accordingly, as a family very orientated towards nature, we acknowledge and give thanks for the turning of the seasons through a little winter solstice ritual and the pleasurable gathering and bringing in of the evergreens. In so doing we give a nod to such godlings of nature as may persist/exist. When grandchildren come into the appropriate time frame we may, depending on the various parents, include Santa and elves. As for Krampus? Well, dark is an absence of light so it is inevitable that the pair are bonded in myth, and at this time darkness may seem to be in the ascendancy. Our personal winter light comes from the nativity scene, and we give thanks for the birth of a historical figure who, however you view him, gave us an enduring ethical template for living. Whilst elven spies with their ‘cute authoritarianism’ may upset some people, is it wrong to at least remind children at this time of year that appropriate and ethical behaviour is what we should aspire to in this difficult world?
      

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
5 months ago

Advent is a season of fasting. Therefore, to take part in this, it is necessary to ask what is most attractive to you. Is it really food and drink?
When the Apostle Paul wrote of the ‘lusts’ that war against the soul, by lust he meant anything strongly attractive. It might be an attraction to stamp collecting or golf. A degree of attraction that puts everything else out of its proper order. It takes primary place in the heart where something else should be. It usurps the throne.
This pretender to the throne might be an attraction to reading current affairs articles. It might be writing them. It might be anything that is good in itself, but just at a certain time, or in a certain way, it is not what should command your soul. What is it to you?
The man who was the bishop of Durham in the Edwardian era wrote lamenting the commercialism of that time. To us that time may seem largely conservative compared to a century later. It is no new thing to make such observations.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure. The rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits.

b blimbax
b blimbax
5 months ago

I always look forward to reading Mary Harrington’s articles. She’s the main reason why I subscribe to UnHerd. But her oblique reference to St Nicholas as having been a “Turkish monk” is completely ahistorical. St Nicholas was born in Asia Minor at the time it was part of the Roman Empire. seven or eight hundred years before the arrival of the Turks. To call him a “Turkish monk” is therefore completely at odds with reality.
What alarms me most about the reference is that it makes me wonder how well researched Ms Harrington’s article is, and how accurate, in other respects.

Kate Madrid
Kate Madrid
5 months ago

Sin darkens the intellect, hardens the heart, and weakens the will. This is a law, like gravity. Mary Harrington is hands down one of the smartest writers going, but still possesses the intellectual darkness of our age and culture. Jeff Bezos is an evil MF, and I pray all the terrifying mercyjustice of God for him. But demons are something else entirely, and we DO NOT prefer them to people.

Kate Madrid
Kate Madrid
5 months ago
Reply to  Kate Madrid

Also, Let’s All Just Acceot Eachother Bells and Smells Christianity is the dumbest religion on offer. And the reason those churches are empty is because humans know real religion requires sacrifice. If you want to know where all the young people are, stop by your local TLM parish or any Novus Ordo parish with a priest that takes the Eucharist seriously (of which there are many, including mine, substandard music and all). The idea that man might get what he needs from beautiful music or architecture outside the sacrifice of the Mass is false. Music and architecture are ways to praise our Savior. They are not salvific. Final note: of course I believe our churches and liturgies should be the height of our artistic endeavors, I’m just saying the reason they should be is the Eucharist. Not tradition or ritual or art or whatever goofy, totally non-salvific thing liberals want to claim is so important.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
5 months ago

“…the looming spectre of climate change…”

I gave up believing in Santa at the age of seven. I have never believed in ‘climate change’!

Maximilian R.
Maximilian R.
5 months ago

I experienced the Krampusslauf in my childhood many times, and I love how it plunges you into the demonic right before the onset of this most holy (and very cosy) Christmas spirit. There’s a real yin-yang thingy going on.
An adjacent family ritual was running barefoot into the snow and back into the warmth of our home on Christmas Eve. It’s healthy, I recommend it if you have the space to do so.

BradK
BradK
5 months ago

These magical products are then delivered frictionlessly, at no cost, as a blessing of the festive season.
That’s not the promise of an “idealised era of industrial abundance” — no one ever suggested industry is cost-free — it is the beckoning lie of Socialism where every need and want falls magically from the sky without obligation. But, of course, only to the good little boys and girls who vote the “correct” way.