Over the last decade or so, American pop culture has discovered the Krampus: a demonic Austrian counterpart to St. Nicholas who threatens kids with cruel punishments while the saint promises them rewards. In The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (Feral House), Al Ridenour explores the Old World's spooky, raucous Krampus festivities, with side trips that cover Yuletide witches, Yuletide werewolves, and other signs of "a deep-rooted European understanding of Christmas as a time of supernatural mayhem."
In theory, Ridenour writes, the Krampus today is "an enforcer of social norms," punishing children who misbehave. But any close look at Krampus practices reveals a rather different impulse at work as well: In these carnivalesque traditions, participants are "freed to act out" and to "create tumult wherever they go." Over the centuries, anxious authorities have tried to ban or tightly regulate these anarchic rites. But whatever short-term victories they won, the idea of the Krampus kept thriving.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Christmas Horrors".