There are few things easier than pointing out the grotesqueness of public square American Christmas. And every year some Christians rally to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” although this would mean scrapping most of what we know as Christmas; if there is a “war on Christmas,” it has long since been waged and won by people who call themselves Christians. Christmas now is a festival on the calendar of the American civil religion and, like the other ones, primarily a signum nudum of some purely material thing. Thanksgiving is about food, New Year’s is about drinking, the Fourth of July is about spectacle (fireworks), and Christmas is the festival of market consumption, and all this is the doing of American Christians, who effected the transformation themselves and whose lead the corporations promptly and obediently followed. And of course it’s worth recalling that some Reformed Christians, like myself, don’t observe Christmas personally in the first place (for good old Calvinian reasons having nothing to do with the holiday’s present commercialization) though I for one wouldn’t deny its proper use to others, and I do wish Merry Christmas to all who do observe it 1. In any case, the real question is putting Christ back in Christendom, and Christmas is not exactly the strategic hill on which that battle will be won. So I think there is little to be gained by entering any discussions which take as granted the existence of some supposed Christmas War, or sententiously inveighing against a commercialized Christmas.
But I have noticed with interest that lately some have raised a cry to rehallow Christmas– not, however, by putting Christ back in it. These are the partisans of Krampus, the horned and hoofed Central European folk figure regarded traditionally as the companion and helper of St Nicholas and malign punisher of juvenile misdeeds, and Krampus becomes more popular every year. Those who are enthusiastic about the return of Krampus seem to be partly attracted by its pre-industrial and thus pre-commercialist pedigree and partly by its symbolism of wild revelry. Others, fewer and further out, seem to hope that the Krampus can be a neopagan substitute for Santa, so that Christmas becomes a purely pagan Yule (one notes the insistent “CE” of the Krampus.com chronology), and Christian commentators are hard put to know which is worse- a purely commercial Christmas with a purely cipher Santa enthroned in the mall, or an openly neopagan Yule, with horned, cloven-hoofed Krampus at the head of its wild revellers. The latter at least might be called religious, but that is small consolation.
But who is the Krampus? The origins of Krampus are obscure and perhaps date back to Palaeolithic Europe; that the figure was at first one of Europe’s “wild men,” which by the Middle Ages had become figures of revel and misrule, seems certain. Likewise, some of the trappings of the popular representations of St Nicholas are obviously borrowed from the boreal figure of Father Winter common to the tundra peoples across North Eurasia. But the modern idea that Christian Europeans have maintained an integrally “pagan” religion unchanged beneath the veneer of revealed religion assumes a great many Enlightenment propositions which remain to be proved. While any good Calvinist, even a modern and cosmopolitan one, must be very skeptical indeed of supposed Christian baptisms of pre-Christian customs, it is also true that what was taken in was always changed. In some cases, the change is dangerously close to being merely nominal; St Elias, whose churches are on Greek mountaintops, sounds suspiciously like Helios (pace Hasluck), whose temples too were built on peaks, and the Mediterranean cult of the Madonna has a New Testament name but a pagan substance. But in cases such as the Christmas tree, the conversion is genuine.
The Christmas tree, like a number of other Christmas customs, entered the English-speaking Protestant world in the 19th century, having arrived in the luggage of the Prince Consort Albert. At roughly the same time, Krampus became a very popular figure in Prince Albert’s native Germany, so much so that “Gruess von Krampus” cards became a Christmas favorite. The Krampus was depicted as punishing wicked children, although in some folk traditions he also rewarded the good ones. But in the imaginary world of the Christmas cards, Krampus was not an independent agent, nor was he an enemy of St Nicholas; rather, he was, just as he was in popular folklore, a “companion of St Nicholas.” Now If Krampus were simply the Devil, it seems very unlikely that popular Christian imagination would make him the companion of St Nicholas in a time well before Christ was mostly taken out of Christmas. Under the name of Pelznickel or Belsnickel, the Krampus was in fact a favorite of German immigrants to North America, and yet these were pious people.
But it is true that this companion of jolly St Nick is depicted as dragging wicked children down to Hell, and how much more devilish can you get? However, according to Luther, it is not only the Devil who does this. For Luther, as for the Protestant consensus generally, the Law, as accuser, has as its office precisely “to make us guilty, to humble us, to kill us, to lead us down to hell .” But it does all this real accusation and metaphorical violence, of course, in order to prepare hearts for the Gospel; the Law is ever the close companion of the Gospel, and its crushing work is done to break our pride so that we might be saved. If benevolent St Nicholas of popular imagination, the giver of gifts as signs of the greatest gift, the giving of the Son of God to us, is rather obviously a personification of the Gospel, then perhaps the 19th c (and even earlier) Krampus– the companion of St Nick- is a popular symbol of the Law in its office as accuser of conscience. And even where Krampus or Belsnickel gives rewards to the good children, here too there is a correspondence to the Law, which rewards good deeds for what they are. But the Gospel offers perfect peace and joy regardless of either the Law’s terrors or its rewards; it is pure gift, an unconditional gift of which parents’ Christmas gifts to their children are an image, for no good parent gives gifts as bribes for good behavior, but rather from love.
Is Krampus then a Christian folk figure representing the Law in mummery? Obviously a traditional folk figure such as this is symbolically very complex, but I think the idea that he is, partly at least, the Law in mummery, is quite plausible. I certainly can’t prove it, but I don’t think is as far-fetched as it sounds. Although Krampus was and is mostly a denizen of the Papalist parts of Austria and Germany, he appeared in Lutheran regions too, and cognate figures appeared even in Reformed regions of Germany and Holland, and in any case, the imagination of the corpus christianorum is notoriously reckless of tidy confessional boundaries.
As an illustration of my point, I might submit Pastor Chris Hull’s sermon of 2012 preached in Christ Lutheran Church, Illinois, in which he evokes the Krampus figure. The sermon is in fact called after him, “Here Comes Krampus.” While the pastor’s well-preached point is that his parishioners are dancing with the Devil- “the Krampus”- because of their worldly cares and failure to give heed to the one thing needful, the rhetoric of the sermon, in which the pastor depicts himself “offending the flesh” of his wayward flock, suggests that the title of the sermon might apply even better primarily not, as Pastor Hull intended, to the world his congregation misloves, but rather to the office of preacher itself insofar as it involves declamation of the Law. If the Law offends the flesh even of those justified by faith, it offends that of those who do not have the light and hope of faith even more. Those who speak the Law today, even and perhaps especially those who speak it in love, good humor, and with no desire whatever to be personal enforcer of it (for such ones cannot be easily dismissed as maladjusted fanatics), are certainly regarded by popular sentiment as offensive, sinister, terrifying, hellish. And yet it must be spoken.
“Putting the Krampus back in Christmas” might seem at first glance to be the very furthest thing from putting Christ back in Christendom. But if St Nick is a symbol of the Gospel, and Krampus a symbol of the Law as Gospel’s close companion, then putting the Krampus back in Christmas- so to speak- might be a step in the right direction.