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All I Want for Christmas is Krampus

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‘Tis the season — for all those Mariah Carey horror memes.

Truth to tell, I’ve actually never minded the song; it’s fine. The horror comes from having it repeated ad nauseam between now and Jan. 1.

Let’s face it: for many of us, the holidays are the loneliest, most depressing time of year. You want scientific proof? The American Psychological Association found that almost 40% of survey respondents experienced increased stress levels during the Christmas season; other studies indicate that a significant portion of the population struggles with heightened depression. (Reports that suicide rates spike in this season, though, are a myth — thank goodness.)

Maybe all the enforced cheer and positivity has something to do with it?

The holidays, in fact, may put us in a spiral of what the philosopher Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” a sort of compulsory cheeriness that erodes the soul. You have to pretend to like Christmas to fit in, but deep inside you’re dying because you hate it. Or at least, you hate what it’s become.

Fortunately, there’s a cure.

Enter Krampus, the European folk demon (horns, fur, tail) who accompanies St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 to punish children who’ve been bad all year. Eric Morley, 46, who works in insurance, plays a terrifying Krampus at various local events this time of year. He wears a wood-carved mask and yak fur costume imported from Austria. The founder of the Krampus Bremerton troupe, which boasts 30 members, he has big plans to turn his town into “the premier Krampus destination in the U.S.”

“Christmas has become very commercialized, stressful, and I’ve heard Krampus described as the antidote,” he said. “It’s a fun alternative. It’s a little bit of a relief.”

Morley started his part-time demon impersonation gig by launching a Krampus Facebook group in 2019, which put him on the radar of the burgeoning Krampus scene in Seattle and beyond. The December 2020 First Friday Artwalk had him cavorting alone in costume down Bremerton’s streets; a year later, he had associates and over 500 attendees. The next year that grew to 2,000. This year, which will feature a Krampus Kraft Market of some 25 vendors and a free Krampus photo set, they’re expecting over 3,000.

It makes sense that Bremerton, with its industrial grit and weirdo-friendly vibe, would become Krampus central, Morley said. Calling himself “an orphan of the holiday,” he was cut off from his church in Utah when he came out as gay. Christmas just wasn’t the same. But in Bremerton, he found a welcoming, diverse community. Krampus is a natural extension of that.

“What’s awesome is that Krampus is all-inclusive,” he told me. “He doesn’t care about your wealth, your religion, your politics, whatever you are, only if you’re naughty or nice. It’s a great unifier."

But Krampus doesn’t unify everybody.

Some (a minority) find him disrespectful to Christianity because he kinda sorta looks like, well, you know, Satan. But that’s a big misconception. It’s more accurate to say that Krampus and the popular image of the devil have a common ancestor in pre-Christian antiquity; think satyrs.

Besides, the yuletide season itself is stitched together from pagan symbols and iconography: the color scheme; the mistletoe; Christmas trees; even the time of year (around the Winter solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia) — they were all heathen stuff co-opted by Christianity as it asserted cultural dominance. Try though it might, the Catholic church just couldn’t eliminate Krampus from the people’s psyche, so it ultimately incorporated him into its holiday traditions by hooking him up with St. Nicholas. Not everybody wants to see it that way, Morley said, but he takes it in stride.

“I respect that people might be offended and that they don’t understand the origins of the holiday and its connection to Christianity itself,” he told me. “Because of my background, I try to have patience with folks who don’t know and a thick layer of skin for people who like to attack me.”

And they have attacked. In 2022 the Seattle Krampus troupe was disinvited from the Leavenworth Village of Lights Christmas celebration due to complaints from (you guessed it) a loud minority. Morley learned from that debacle.

“I watched what happened in Leavenworth, and how it went awry,” he said. “Some business owners got together and petitioned the city council and the chamber of commerce to express their disdain for Krampus. So, here in Bremerton, I started with the businesses. ‘I’m bringing 2,000 customers to you that you wouldn’t normally get!’ Then I brought the chamber of commerce and the city council and the mayor on board. So that when we got challenged — and one woman in particular has spoken a couple of times about me and the Krampus character in the public forums of the city council — when that happened, nobody shouted me down, because I had already done a lot of the preparation to make sure people knew about the economic benefit to the city. So that even some of the shop owners for whom Krampus is not their cup of tea, they still participate in it because they’re smart businesspeople.”

Thank you, Eric Morley. As a KP-er I am thrilled to have such a wonderful annual event as Krampusnacht practically in my backyard. Krampus belongs to the “older, more dangerous Christmas,” as described by Al Ridenour in his book “The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil.” It’s a throwback to a time when Yuletide was scarier, with hints of otherworldly powers lurking in the winter murk.

We see vestiges of it in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a ghost story about undead creatures who frighten a bad man into doing good, or more recently in Tim Burton’s “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” which ecstatically blurs the line between Christmas and Halloween. Krampus is part of a global tradition of children’s bogeymen, whether it’s Slapu the Native wild woman of the woods in stories from the Clallam area, or La Llorona (weeping woman) from my south Texas upbringing.

Viva Krampus! And no offense to Mariah Carey.

José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at U.W. He lives blissfully with his wife and many animals in Longbranch


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