I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

I suppose this is a very little known film because it’s in Finnish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an American remake. It’s a funny, adorable, heart-warming, action-packed, kids horror/adventure movie, and it’s full of surprises. There are lots of guns, nudity, and grisly scenes in an abattoir. In Finland, even Christmas is black metal.

There seems to be a trend at the moment, away from the excessively syrupy, sugar coated all-American view of Christmas, and towards something darker. Suddenly people are talking about weird Christmas folk traditions, and about Krampus, who is Santa’s nasty little helper. I first heard about Krampus about a year ago, but now he seems to be everywhere. In fact, there’s a Christmas horror movie out right now, called Krampus, and it’s doing very well. But who on earth is Krampus?

Like our traditional ‘British’ Christmas celebrations, Krampus has a Germanic origin (Bavaria and Austria to be specific), and probably dates from the pre-Christian era. In Germanic folklore he’s a horned, devilish figure who appears in the midwinter season to punish naughty children by beating them, eating them, or carrying them off with him. He’s one of the companions of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, who rewards good children with gifts. St Nicholas usually appears on 6th December, bringing sweets to good children, while Krampus appears on the 5th bringing lumps of coal and birch twigs. Sometimes the two appear together. It seems as though the sentimental Victorians only ever took on the St Nicholas tradition, and left his sinister companion to the Austrians and Germans. Meanwhile, in German-speaking countries, Krampus cards were surprisingly popular.

Like many folkloric traditions, there was a time when Krampus was banned. Austrians banned him in 1934, and right-wingers campaigned against his general ungodliness in the 1950s. But Krampus has recently been enjoying a revival in Germany and Eastern Europe, with some areas having annual parades, festivals, or drunken ‘Krampus runs’. I guess this is an excuse for all the town’s metal heads and horror fans to join in with the municipal spirit! After all, it’s pretty hard to be Goth while wearing a Santa hat and listening to Mariah Carey.

A Krampus fest in Munich

More Krampus jollity in Munich

There has, of course, been some controversy about Krampus. Christians may associate him with the devil, some argue that it’s totally unsuitable for children, while others complain that Krampus – who is usually black – is racist. Krampus sometimes carries a washpot or cloth sack to carry away naughty children. This supposedly refers to the Moorish raids on European coasts in the 12th century, when locals were abducted into slavery. However, it’s much more apparent in some of St Nicholas’s other traditional companions, such as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Peter’) of the Netherlands, who resembles a golliwog. It seems unlikely that Krampus, originally an inhabitant of inland, Alpine areas, has anything at all to do with coastal raids by the Moors.

Let’s go back to Zwarte Piet though. This is an interesting and incredibly confused story. Zwarte Piet is a ‘tradition’, but one created by a nineteenth century children’s author. Scholars have attempted to see if he is connected to earlier traditions, but it all seems pretty dubious. Legend has it that the Dutch St Nicholas, or ‘Sinterklaas’, was sometimes depicted with a chained devil, who was sometimes black in colour. In other words, Zwarte Piet might just be a variant on Krampus. Strangely, though, Piet is not evil. Sinterklaas started out as a pretty harsh character, who punished the naughty and rewarded the good, but during the nineteenth century, when middle class parents got more sentimental about their kids, he got all jolly and nice. Piet emerged at the same time, and is also a jolly, friendly chap. He’s more of a helper elf or a sidekick than an anti-Santa like Krampus. The Moorish connection is a big thing in Dutch Christmas legends – Sinterklaas and Piet live in Spain, not Lapland, and they arrive each year by boat. But the whole tradition appears to have been made up in the 1850s. The figure’s appearance and even name did not crystallize until later.

Sinterklaas and a whole bunch of Piets in the Netherlands

I imagine most British people would be pretty shocked by Zwarte Piet, but in the Netherlands 90% of people say he’s an integral part of their Christmas tradition and not at all racist (according to Wikipedia). But anti-Piet protests are growing, especially from ethnic minorities and sophisticated urbanites. It’s interesting that what is and isn’t considered racist can vary so much in different countries. This reminds me of the notorious book Tintin in the Congo. There has been a massive uproar about it in Europe on several occasions, with various attempts to ban it, but in the Democratic Republic of Congo itself, the book is incredibly popular. Strange, huh?

The ‘tradition’ aspect also interests me. I mean, when does something become a tradition? How many times do you have to do it before it’s traditional? Zwarte Piet has at most been enjoyed by about 4 generations. If a tradition, then, can spring out of the general cultural ether according to the needs of the day, can it not just die out again when it is no longer needed? Must we cling to it, even if it’s obviously outdated? A ‘tradition’ is something that appears to be fixed, but in reality it is something fluid. It comes and goes as it’s needed and exists in a perpetual state of change, while all the while we comfort ourselves with the thought that it is set in stone, as ancient as the hills. That being the case, I feel Piet’s days, at least in his present incarnation, must surely be numbered.

While the Dutch are mostly baffled by anti-Piet sentiment, the Austrians are aware of cultural sensitivities, and of just how weird and scary their beloved Krampus can be. In the village of Virgen, locals went house-to-house with an interpreter this year, to explain their annual Krampus-fest to newly-arrived refugees from the middle east. I think this is very thoughtful – it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to abandon all your traditions for fear of politically-correct recriminations, but that kindness, sensitivity and understanding don’t hurt either. Change is not to be feared, but embraced. In fact, that seems like good advice for life in general.

But if you’re still in the mood for a slighter darker, more Gothic shade of Christmas, how about this – Mariah Carey’s beloved festive warble ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ – the terrifying stalker version?

See? You CAN be Goth at Christmas!

Happy Christmas Everyone!



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