How Krampus saved Christmas for metalheads

This Krampusnacht, we look at how Germany’s Christmas demon brought holiday cheer to metal fans.

How Krampus saved Christmas for metalheads
Chris Krovatin

For plenty of people, Christmas is more a burden than a joy. While the message of the season is supposed to be one of generosity, togetherness, and warmth, the commercialisation of the holiday and the way many devout believers behave during the Christmas season make the holiday an exhausting farce. This is especially true of metal fans, whose love of old pagan traditions and extreme imagery usually feels at odd with the Coca-Cola-guzzling Santas and all-white nativity scenes present during Christmas time. More than one hesher has received a sweater with a snowman on it from their disapproving parents and wished the whole holiday would burn to the ground.

But now, an ancient spirit of has returned to the public eye: Krampus, the Bavarian Christmas demon and companion of Santa Claus, who lashes and terrifies naughty children. A leering, goat-legged reflection of jolly old Saint Nick, Krampus represents the draconian seriousness with which Christmas was once celebrated. And now, as a pop-culture figure, he’s given metal fans a new icon with which they can blaze into the holidays.

Above: A depiction of Krampus and St. Niklaus visiting a home in Vienna, 1896

It’s only fitting that Christmas has a demonic entity of its own. Most of the traditions we consider synonymous with the holiday – decorating trees, garlands of holly and pine, gathering around the hearth – are pagan in origin, borrowed from the Germanic festival of Yule. In fact, Christ’s birth is believed to have actually happened in May, but its celebration was moved to combat, and eventually assimilate, the lively pre-Christian festivals that threatened to keep pagans from converting to the church. The gods of these old religions, meanwhile – figures like Pan, Odin and Hecate – were recast as demons and monsters. One of those, the archaic forest spirit that Wiccans refer to as the Horned God, eventually evolved into the figure we now know as Krampus.

Krampus is basically central Europe's answer to a lump of coal in one’s stocking. While Saint Nicholas would bring good children gifts and treats, Krampus would come to whip them with a birch switch and deafen them with rattling chains (meant to symbolise the binding of Satan). Especially naughty children are stuffed in the demon's satchel so that later they can be drowned, eaten, or even taken back to Hell. Usually, Krampus is shown as a mischievous horned monster with goats’ hooves with his tongue lolling out, but sometimes he’s reimagined as a Faustian man with a moustache, or a full-on goat monster. While Saint Nick was a figure of stern kindness, Krampus was one of hilarious mayhem.

Above: Krampus visiting TRVE Brewing in Denver, Colorado

The character became such a part of European culture that December 5, the night before the Feast Of Saint Nicholas, became known as Krampusnacht. In alpine towns throughout areas Bavaria, Sweden, and Slovakia, young men would dress up in terrifying Krampus costumes and run through the streets, causing good-natured chaos as a precursor to Christmas. But as the holiday became more commercial, and things like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol remade the season as one purely focused on cheer and abundance (an especially weird development, given that this timeless tale is a ghost story), the idea of a Christmas devil faded into obscurity, at least outside of the countries where he was a central figure.

By the early 2000s, memories of Krampus has begun resurfacing. Perhaps the most notable re-injection of the character into the pop culture sphere, though, was Devil In Design, a collection of Krampus postcard art collected by Monte Beauchamp and published in 2004. The book showed off the many ways that Krampus was depicted in German and central Europe, and had people in America and the UK dumbfounded and delighted. A Christmas demon – only in Germany, right?

But the character appealed to lots of people, especially rock and metal fans. Krampus being wicked but not evil felt in keeping with heavy metal’s version of the Devil, who preaches freedom and indulgence rather than cruelty and horror. More so, the fact that he was a spirit of punishment was a reminder that Christmas wasn’t above being fair (to put it another way, it’s comforting to know that if a spoiled, snot-nosed kid behaves like a little bastard all year, there’s a grinning devil ready to give them a few hard swats on the butt for it).

With Krampus involved, Christmas was no longer about saccharine music and over-seasoned ham – it was about the pagan traditions of the world, the time before big companies took over the celebration of midwinter.

The peak of Krampus' newfound popularity was Michael Dougherty’s 2015 film of the same name, which tells the story of a family beset upon by the dark half of Saint Nicholas when one little boy stops believing in Christmas. Michael had just made horror history with Trick ’r Treat, his anthology film paying homage to Halloween; with Krampus, he did the same for Christmas, lambasting the holiday’s shallow side and reminding viewers the true meaning of the season in a blast of killer toys and homicidal elves. The director’s depiction of the titular spirit is respectably metal, too, a monstrous, open-mouthed version of Santa whose sleigh is led by skull-headed frost-goats, and who ends the movie holding a child over a blazing portal to Hell. Fuck yes.

With the re-emergence of Krampus, metalheads have begun keeping Christmas in their hearts again, now that they have a figure that represents them. The character is a reminder that Christmas is older than Walmart and Nat King Cole, and has given fans of all things loud and ancient something they can believe in. Instead of an impenetrable fortress of forced smiles, Christmas is now a celebration of both light and dark, the thoughtful gift and the deserved lash. So be good, for goodness sake.

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