03 January 2017

The Krampus Gang

The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, Al Ridenour
Christmas for our ancestors was a darker, more dangerous season. Instead of a childlike, bright Santa Claus in pajamas and a stocking cap who gives gifts to children no matter what, the European tradition included St. Nicholas, who loved children but was a stern taskmaster. For disobedient children—especially deliberately disobedient ones—he traveled with a partner, a usually fearsome companion who threatened children with beatings and, in hard cases, being taken away to face further monstrous punishment, like being eaten alive.

One character enjoying a revival is the Krampus, a furred, horned, goat-footed monstrosity with a long red tongue, who evolved from other, older winter monsters called Perchta. This is Ridenour's journey to Austria/Germany/the Swiss Alps to find those who still follow the traditions and find out where they come from.  Some are newly revived, some go back centuries, all are now involved in complicated performances during Christmastide, and some of them are borderline professional, to the scorn of others who practice the old customs for love. All the side influences are also examined: evil Lucia personas to accompany St. Lucy on December 13, Frau Holle and La Befana, Silvester "Claus" characters, and the original Percht.

Ridenour tries to separate the original characters from what he thinks are false conclusions reached in the 19th century (that all the evil characters were ancient fertility symbols) and neopagan modern practices from more traditional processions. The book is lavishly illustrated with full-color, elaborate costumes and gatherings and the different aspects of the characters (fur-clad demons to men of straw to "pinecone men"). It's all fascinating reading, but his attempts to document every single different custom in each village may become tedious for some readers after a while.

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