Monster Nation: The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas

Though the Krampus has been making a splash in American popular culture, his appearances in televions, film, and other media only skim the surface of what the folkloric creature is actually about. Al Ridenour looks to change that with his new book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil (softcover, $25). The exhaustive tome catalogues not just the Krampus and their variations and origins but also related creatures like the witch Perchta, the "Child Eaters," and more.

The book kicks off with a map of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, the provenance of these monsters, and an introduction that lays the historical foundation for a Christmas bewitched by ghosts and goblins. "Christmas requires the darkness," Ridenour declares alongside an illustration of Scrooge and Marley's ghost from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. He goes on to detail how both Saint Nicholas Day on December 6 and the "12 days of Christmas," beginning with December 25 and concluding with Epiphany on January 6, have encompassed a wide range of persons and creatures both light and dark. Even the Santa who inspired Saint Nicholas has his dark side: Clement C. Moore somehow neglected to mention that time jolly old Saint Nick resurrected three children who had been murdered and cannibalized.

Ridenour ventured overseas to observe how the Krampus and related traditions are practiced in modern times. Some of his writing is quite poetic and evocative, as in this passage from chapter two: "I looked up into the monster's face. Breath steamed through his painted teeth as he growled, and I thought I caught a whiff of brandy. He rattled a chain and slashed the air with switches. I lurched back, slipping in snow, and felt the blow land on my back. I'd made contact!"

Unfortunately, this sort of grounding detail gets pushed aside as Ridenour catalogues more and more myths and monsters, and at times the book feels like a bit of a slog. But there are many rewards for the patient reader, from a range of exceptional illustrations and photographs — the artistry on display in the Krampuslauf, or Krampus run, is quite impressive — to a number of fascinating interconnections between Christmas and Halloween. There's also a gender studies paper just waiting to be written about the Krampus phenomenon. For instance, the all-male troupes have accepted the assistance of women only in limited roles and whispered rumors of an upstart group started by lesbians. The Wolflauslassen, young men thrusting their crotches to ring enormous bells and release the wolves, have "a certain aura," according to a local historian. You can say that again!

The sheer breadth of Ridenour's study is impressive. Although certain topics are beyond the scope of his work, he manages to draw connections between the Krampus and cosplay and place everything in a larger historical context. He also makes the case that "superstitious" peoples of long ago had as much need for fun and frivolity as we do today, and may never have truly believed the legends and rituals that they payed homage to.

The Krampus is a nicely illustrated and deep read that should satisfy your curiosity if you want to know more about St. Nicholas's "shadow."

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