The last few Christmases have seen the Krampus making his presence felt far beyond his snowy Alpine homelands. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Krampus is a hairy, horned devil who carries a sack and a switch. He accompanies Saint Nicholas on his Yuletide rounds in early December, and while Nicholas gives gifts to good children, Krampus whips the naughty ones, and pops the really bad little boys and girls in his sack to take away.
Towns and cities where the legend’s survived, mostly around Austria and Bavaria, have annual parades, or Krampus Runs, where locals dress in elaborate, shaggy devil costumes, ringing cacophonous bells and menacing onlookers with birch twigs and whips. Starting in the 1800s, instead of traditional Christmas cards, some mischievous locals preferred to give Krampuskarten depicting their favourite seasonal bogeyman.
Come the 21st Century, people outside the Krampus’s traditional stamping ground have recognised his power as an antidote to the increasingly sickly sweet version of Christmas promoted in the mainstream media, and began organising their own Krampus Runs, as far afield as Portland in the USA. His distinctive horned features have also cropped up in several recent Yuletide American horror movies, some of which, inevitably, are rather better than others. (For our own round-up of the best seasonal chillers, check out our list from last year https://www.alchemyengland.com/site/index.php/2016/12/twas-fright-christmas/ )
Then, in 2015, the UK saw its first Krampus Run in the picturesque streets of the Yorkshire port of Whitby. This year, after the run, a trio of Krampuses made their way to York’s famed curiousity shop – and leading local Alchemy dealer – Pandora’s Box to deal out some punishment to the city’s naughtiest children. We dispatched our resident devil-wrangler, Gavin Baddeley, to interrogate them. He spoke to Elaine Edmonds, the trio’s leading folklore expert, on how Central Europe’s favourite Christmas monster had made his way to England…
I began by asking Elaine how it all begin? “With our Decadent Drawing group we organise regular themed, alternative life drawing sessions in Whitby,” she explained. “In December of 2013, we decided to do a Krampus themed session. After we’d finished, our Krampus decided to escape the confines of our studio and rampage through the streets. It caused such a stir that we thought we should do it properly, and it all started from there.”
Whitby’s long been associated with the novel Dracula as well as the resultant Goth festivals. Over the years not everybody’s been happy about this, with a small, but vocal minority objecting that this is bad for the town’s reputation as a family destination, or even potentially unhealthy or unholy. I wondered if the Whitby Krampuses had experienced any local hostility?
“There was some suspicion initially,” Elaine concedes. “Some people thought it was going to be another horror festival, or was even some kind of devil or occult thing. But from the very start we very deliberately wanted it to be child-friendly – it is very much a family tradition – and once they’d experienced it, people soon got that.” But ultimately, isn’t the Krampus about reintroducing a little darkness and wildness back into Christmas? “Oh, we’re all about darkness and wildness” laughs Elaine, “but safe wildness. It’s a good reaction to the sanitised commercial Christmas of today.”
The Goth festival’s helped Whitby develop a reputation as something of an alternative town. Is the Krampus perhaps becoming a counterculture Yuletide icon? “The whole tradition definitely offers an alternative take on Christmas,” Elaine agrees. “But it isn’t specifically a Goth thing – we’re not really part of that subculture – though Goths have certainly embraced it. However so has everyone from Punks to Pagans, and we’re more part of the techno scene if anything.”
There are quite a lot of strange, even creepy Christmas customs that lie largely forgotten in the backwaters of the British Isles. For example, I said to Elaine, isn’t there a crazy Christmas creature that has a horse-skull for a head? Do we have nothing like a traditional British Krampus? “The creature you’re thinking of would be the Mari Lwyd from South Wales” she answered. “We do have odd traditions like that, like Wren Boys in Ireland, but nothing quite like the Krampus. We’ve been quite keen on incorporating local traditions into our interpretation for Whitby Krampus Run though, such as Yorkshire’s black dog or barghest.
“We’ve had quite a bit of support and advice from some of the Austrian groups, especially the Grodiger Krampus people, who also put on Hell’s Circus. And they haven’t accused us of cultural appropriation yet!” adds Elaine. “Quite a few of their different practices have developed from early traditional practice . And while we may not have a surviving British Krampus tradition, the horned Mesolithic headdresses found at the Star Carr archeological dig here in Yorkshire may be some of the oldest in Europe, so you could say we’re going back to our ancient roots!”
For more information on the Whitby Krampus Run, check out their website here: https://www.decadentdrawing.com/whitbykrampusrun
And to keep abreast of future events at Pandora’s Box, keep an eye on their site here: http://www.pandorasboxyork.com/
With thanks to Decadent Drawing and Simon Blackwood for the Whitby Krampus Run photographs.
Words by – Gavin Baddeley