Once upon a time, before Christmas became sanitised, Americanised and candy-coated by Santa Claus and Coca Cola, in Europe Yuletide was more ominous, weird, and occasionally downright scary than jolly. Few are better qualified to explore the dark side of the holiday season than the Folk Horror Revival group. ‘Folk’ has recently become the hottest buzzword in horror circles, ‘folk horror’ the term to describe that elusive area where rural folklore and arcane tradition intertwine with the ghostly and ghastly on page and screen. In early December of this year the Folk Horror Revival group held a symposium on all things spooky and seasonal they entitled Winter Ghosts 2019.
The event was held in the picturesque if bleak northern English port of Whitby, a notably apt location. Whitby established itself as a Gothic Mecca when the author Bram Stoker wrote and then set significant parts of his 1897 novel DRACULA there. This of course in turn led to the town hosting some of the world’s leading Goth festivals starting in the 1990s. Latterly, in 2015, Whitby became home to Britain’s only Krampus Run, of which more presently. The line-up for the 2019 Winter Ghosts weekend was impressively diverse, embracing eerie storytelling, fascinating, witty talks on appropriately chilling topics, a wide range of weird and wonderful music, and a selection of suitably strange short films.
The highlight for many, however, was the appearance by guest of honour, Al Ridenour, who’d flown all the way from California to attend Winter Ghosts. Al was influential in popularising and spreading one of the world’s scariest Yuletide traditions with his acclaimed book THE KRAMPUS AND THE OLD DARK CHRISTMAS. The Krampus is a boisterous, shaggy devil figure who appears during the Yuletide season – often in conjunction with St Nicholas – ringing cacophonous bells, putting naughty children into his sack, and spanking pretty girls with birch twigs. The legend has roots stretching back some two centuries or more, originally confined to the Alpine regions of Central Europe, where locals would rampage in elaborate Krampus costumes, creating chaos, terror and merriment throughout the neighbourhood. In recent years, the Krampus has seen an explosion of international popularity, most notably with the hit 2015 US Xmas horror film KRAMPUS, which spawned several imitators.
In his book, and during his Winter Ghosts talk, Al Ridenour was keen to correct a few of the inevitable misconceptions that arose when the Krampus myth was adopted by Hollywood. For one thing, krampuses are a kind of monster, rather than a specific demon, so if we’re being pedantic we should really say a krampus rather than the Krampus. Also, while Hollywood has started portraying the Krampus as Santa’s arch-enemy, he’s more like St Nicholas’s partner or side-kick, to the extent that the two are associated at all. Krampuses often operate without any Santa-style back-up. Furthermore, while he’s certainly associated with the Yuletide season, the Krampus isn’t technically a Christmas creature, as he appears in early rather than late December. But, as Al was keen to emphasise, the tradition’s about fun and participation rather than dry and dusty scholarship.
To this end, he’d brought a Californian Krampus with him, who takes part in the Los Angeles Krampus run. There was an element of transatlantic claws-across-the-ocean at Winter Ghosts, as also in attendance were the two organisers of the Whitby Krampus run in full devilish regalia. As Al emphasised in his talk, the Krampus is just one of many dark seasonal traditions from across Europe – featuring a startling array of winter witches, spectres and ogres – which largely died out in the 20th Century, but are now generating new interest in the 21st. And as living traditions, myths like the Krampus are adapting to suit new times and places. The Whitby Krampus run, for example, have been introducing elements of local Yorkshire lore relating to the spectral black dog or barguest into their event.
Also in attendance at Winter Ghosts was an even more bizarre British creature, brought along by Professor Barbara Ravelhofer of Durham University. The Mari Lwyd is a strange manifestation that haunted the south of Wales at night over Yuletide. Basically a horse’s skull on a pole, with a man underneath draped in a white sheet, making the horse’s teeth clatter alarmingly with a piece of string, the Mari Lwyd went from house to house, demanding entry – it being Wales, using the medium of song. This may sound absurd, but even in the brightly-lit venue, surrounded by friends and fellow festival-goers, an encounter with the Mari Lwyd was pretty unnerving. On a dark December night in the rural seclusion of the Welsh valleys, it must’ve been downright disturbing.
The unique value of events like the Folk Horror Revival’s Winter Ghosts, in an age when the Internet tends to isolate us, is in bringing likeminded people together, to celebrate forgotten tales and neglected lore. These arcane traditions are one thing studied on the page or read on the screen, but encountering them in the flesh, so to speak, literally brings them to life. And Winters Ghosts served as a timely reminder that Christmas isn’t just about endless shopping, too much chocolate, and enforced happiness. It is a thread that connects us with our ancestors, who understood that all of the winter festivals clustered around the shortest days of the year were about darkness – both defying it and accepting it – and that, as we all know, without darkness there can be no light. Even at Christmas…
For more information on the Folk Horror Revival and future events, check out their website here https://folkhorrorrevival.com/
For more on the Whitby Krampus run, they have a site here https://www.decadentdrawing.com/whitbykrampusrun
If all of this talk of weird folklore and eerie traditions has inspired you, we have a few treasures we think might tempt you. Like our Tree of Death Bowl (V91), or our Magic Ram’s Horn faux stretcher (E356). If you’re looking for a pendant with that ominous pagan vibe, then how about the White Hart, Black Rose design (P807), or inspired by the same motif the White Heart Wreath (XJ3) which we’re confident is the most folk horror Christmas jumper out there!
Words by – Gavin Baddeley
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