“On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing," Charles Dickens ominously wrote in his 1851 essay “What Christmas is as we grow older.”
He continues, "Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep? ... Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?”
“Not even that.”
Those shadows and more haunt the pages of “The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas,” Al Ridenour’s gleefully erudite study of the more gruesome and ancient traditions associated with the holiday. A member of the anarchic cultural network the Cacophony Society, known for staging Dadaist happenings for unsuspecting audiences, Ridenour here turns his attention to a rite with a more venerable pedigree: the annual appearance of the Krampus, a hairy, horned, chain-toting biped that resembles a Wookiee on a bender.
“Christmas requires the darkness,” Ridenour reminds us in his introduction. “Come late December the child’s world of consensual reality begins to dissolve — magic elves crouch and spy in suburban homes, still-moist pines are suddenly hauled indoors, and parents whisper and sleepwalk through rituals they can’t explain.” Primarily in the alpine regions of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy, an integral part of these rituals remains the Krampus, in all his terrifying glory.
A figure whose origin can be traced to the pre-Christian era, the Krampus combines elements from numerous European traditions, like the Roman Saturnalia and Kalends, winter festivals that inverted the social order. Friends and families who could afford to feasted nonstop; masters and slaves might indulge in role reversal or share a meal; costumed partygoers wore animal masks or cross-dressed.
In the forests of the Alps, hordes of eldritch creatures hid. Along with more familiar goblins and little people there were demon goats, the seductive and sinister mist woman Nebelfrau and Seelvogel, a soul-stealing bird. The Wild Hunt roamed the skies from Norway to the Czech border, led by a hunter who might be Odin or Satan, depending on your perspective. Beaked Perchten, frightening female figures who appear at Epiphany, probably derive from far more archaic beliefs. Ridenour serves as a nimble guide to these varied origins and many more, showing how over millennia they became part of a complex pan-European mythology that continues to resonate in popular culture, especially around the Christmas holidays.
No stranger to childhood terrors, Maurice Sendak gave Americans a 20th century vision of Krampus in “Where the Wild Things Are,” which looses monsters with the command “Let the wild rumpus start!” More recently, they may recognize Krampus from the 2015 horror flick that bears his name, or the book “Krampus: The Yule Lord” by the artist-illustrator Brom released that same year.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, his image adorned impishly perverse — and popular — Austrian holiday cards, bearing the message Gruß vom Krampus! (Greetings from Krampus!) These might depict a lasciviously long-tongued, whip-bearing Krampus stuffing terrified children into a sack or leering at modishly dressed young women.
Today, Austria’s mountainous Gastein Valley may be Krampus Central (although Ridenour has organized a number of Los Angeles events, including a Krampus Ball and a Krampus Play). In the Gastein Valley, Krampus accompanies a costumed St. Nicholas on the saint’s household visits, on or around his Dec. 6 feast day. Forerunner of the American Santa Claus, St. Nicholas carries a staff and wears a bishop’s red chasuble and miter. While Krampus waits impatiently outside, St. Nicholas greets the children of each house. He checks their names in his Golden Book to see what mischief they’ve been up to, listens as they recite poems they’ve learned in the weeks leading up to his visit. After ascertaining that they’ve been (for the most part) well-behaved during the previous 12 months, he gives them small bags of treats.
These niceties dispensed with, the real fun begins. As a warning to anyone who might be thinking of eschewing homework for a few hours with Playstation, St. Nicholas opens the door and lets the Krampus inside to terrify the kids, who hide behind the dining table. “Today, of course,” one of Ridenour’s informants assures us, “they have to be much more careful about good floors, and mind that they don’t scratch furniture or knock down lampshades with their horns.”
The highlight of these celebrations, and those in other parts of Austria and Germany, are parades or unscheduled appearances of the Krampuspass, or Krampus troupe — groups of people wearing elaborate furry outfits that can weigh 80 pounds, along with beautifully hand-carved wooden masks that cost a thousand dollars or more. They’re also outfitted with weapons — usually chains and whips — as well as heavy bells that warn of their approach.
Increasingly, women play the role of Krampus. But traditionally this is a guy thing, due to the physical demands of the costumes and the choreographed, if very real, violence that can ensue during the annual Krampuslauf, or Krampus run. YouTube videos of these events suggest a cross between Mardi Gras and a Christmas parade run amok. Alcohol use is discouraged or forbidden, but shoving matches known as rempeln still break out between Krampuses.
And these wild things sometimes strike people in the crowd. Unsurprisingly, taunting teenage boys catch the brunt of this (they presumably go on to become successful Krampuses themselves). A Krampus might grunt or roar, but he doesn’t speak. “Why would he? A Krampus is not a human,” says one participant.
They don’t need to talk. The sight of a Krampuspass in full spate can be traumatic enough that some adults suffer from Krampusangst, Krampus phobia. And while most of the Krampuses interviewed by Ridenour emphasize that they try to tone it down for very young children, the entire point of the Krampuslauf is to embrace fear and chaos, however briefly.
As another runner puts it, the Krampus embodies “the season of autumn and early winter — the twilight, the slowing down and the mystical feeling that foreshadows these traditional events, the tales of mythical creatures, the forests of the mountains where they lurk, and the presence of the unknown.”
Well-researched and sumptuously illustrated with both contemporary and vintage images (many of them nightmare-worthy), Ridenour’s book deserves to become a classic in its own right, a step toward reclaiming what he calls “our lost, dark Christmas.”
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent novel is “Hard Light.”
Feral House: 254 pp., $25 paper