In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that has become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
A little over two weeks ago, Krampus opened to somewhat positive reviews, and looks poised to become a modest box-office hit. But even the more favorable write-ups pointed out some glaring flaws in the film: In addition to perhaps being a little too stingy in showing off its practical creature effects—fanged teddy bears, harpy-like angels, and wormy jack-in-the-boxes run amok, but only in brief flashes—Krampus isn’t very clear with its own rules and mythology.
Granted, there’s not exactly a lot to go off of when building a story around the horned beast. The product of Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is usually portrayed as an anti-Santa Claus, a terrifying yuletide figure who, rather than reward good children with presents, drags away bad kids in his burlap sack so he can whip them with birch branches. He also has cloven hooves, a serpentine tongue, and drags around chains like a were-goat mutation of Jacob Marley. Outside of these obvious allusions to Satan though (Krampus is often referred to as “The Christmas Devil”), there’s not much in way of a definitive background. Where Santa has his own workshop at the North Pole, not to mention a complex origin story rooted in everything from Coca-Cola advertisements to Washington Irving tales to an actual saint, Krampus has almost nothing. He’s recognized as the evil side of Christmas, and that’s about it.
Krampus the film does little to elaborate on this, simply defining its title character as the “shadow” of Santa Claus and taking the metaphor quite literally. On top of the horns, hooves, and chains, he wears a dirty crimson robe, and his face—when we finally do see it—looks a lot like Saint Nick’s if it were merged with a goblin shark. He’s merely the source of caution in a cautionary tale, a warning that, if you don’t appreciate the joy of Christmas, a nightmare version of Kris Kringle will send an army of demonic toys to terrorize your family.
Anyone looking for a more satisfying riff on the Krampus mythos (and a more satisfying dark Christmas story in general) should pick up a copy of Krampus: The Yule Lord. Written by gothic fantasy artist and writer Brom, the handsomely illustrated tome drops a failed singer-songwriter and chronic fuck-up named Jesse Walker in the middle of a war between The Christmas Devil and the big guy in red. Here, displaced in the backwoods of West Virginia, Krampus is an anti-Santa Claus in more ways than one.
But their conflict goes far beyond Santa being good and Krampus being evil, as Jesse discovers after accidentally coming into possession of the former’s magical bag. His find attracts the attention of the “devil men” he witnessed chasing Saint Nick and his reindeer earlier in the night: scaly, gun- and knife-brandishing beings clad in feathers, fur, and ritualistic masks. These are Krampus’ Belsnickels, a term also borrowed from German-speaking folklore. Not only do they want the sack—they need Jesse’s assistance in unchaining and restrengthening their master, who has been imprisoned by Santa in a cave of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. Jesse, caught up in his own mess with Dillard, the town’s corrupt sheriff who’s married to his ex-wife, reluctantly agrees to help.
In between Krampus’ pursuit of Father Christmas and his own rivalry with Dillard, Jesse gradually learns the details of the Yule Lord’s complicated past with Santa Claus. And what do you do when your title character has no concrete backstory to call his own? You draw from other legends. So it’s no surprise that Brom traces the feud all the way back to Germanic and Norse mythology: Krampus is the grandson of Loki and Santa is none other than Baldr, the second son of Odin. After getting assassinated by his brother through Loki’s trickery, Baldr gets sent to the underworld, where he befriends the young imp. When Baldr is reborn in the mortal world, the two work together to spread the pagan ritual of Yule, the time during winter when Mother Earth heals herself. Those who pay tribute to nature are showered with gifts from Krampus’ sack (passed down to him by Loki) and those who don’t are thrashed with those infamous birch rods.
Sometime during the Middle Ages, Christianity begins to overshadow the focal paganism of the season, and Baldr fully embraces the change by taking on the mantle of the actual Saint Nicholas (who died over 1,000 years earlier) and stealing the sack so he can spread presents and good cheer to all. However, the sack’s magic can only be unlocked by one of Loki’s descendants, so Baldr locks away Krampus and draws his blood to fully complete the transformation. Thus, the folkloric titan known as Santa Claus is born. Understandably, the newly free Krampus wants revenge, and to reclaim a holiday that’s rightfully his.
Although Brom positions Krampus as the true symbol of winter, he’s also careful never to paint him as a wholly noble hero. The temperamental Yule Lord more than lives up to his monstrous appearance by abusing those closest to him, gobbling up ravens while they’re still alive, replenishing himself with severed animal limbs, and decapitating his enemies. During the book’s most frightening sequence, he saves Jesse from Dillard’s posse by crawling out of the sack and systematically butchering them. Despite having been tortured by his captors with a nail gun, Jesse still recoils in horror as Krampus materializes from the seemingly empty bag and rips out one man’s heart. Holding up the organ to the sky, he howls, then grins maliciously at his human companion. “It is good… good to be terrible,” he cackles while licking the blood off his hand.
Even the rescue itself is somewhat inadvertent. Krampus only appears because one of the hillbilly gangsters reaches into the bag and literally (and accidentally) grabs the devil by the horns. He massacres the criminals because they disturbed him, not just because they’ve tied up Jesse. When Jesse begs him to save his family, who are being put in danger by Dillard, the demon answers with “Perhaps one day. But this day there is another villain to be dealt with.” The Yule Lord seems to value his own mission (fueled by nothing but vengeance, it’s worth noting) over the life of any human, even a defenseless little girl like Jesse’s daughter.
Just as Brom never depicts Krampus as a true hero, he never depicts Santa as a true villain. As the writer points out, Baldr did get screwed over by Loki when he died at the hands of his brother, which makes his plot against the trickster’s family fairly understandable. And when he does rise to fame as Father Christmas, his acts make the world a better place, even if they’re driven as much by ego as they are altruism. Baldr believes in the idea of Santa Claus just as much as the rest of us, allowing Krampus to honor the traditional imagery of Christmas while still shedding some much-needed light on its pagan origins.
Brom—an illustrator long before he was a novelist—further stirs this melting pot of source material through several paintings in the middle of the book. While Krampus very much resembles the conventional image of a demon with his fiery eyes, pointed beard, and lion’s tail, the artist throws some crushed Christmas ornaments and candy canes at his feet, rubbing the two opposing meanings of “yuletide” right up against each other. Likewise, Santa’s braided beard, barrel chest, and broadsword recall a Norse God, but his knee-length red pants, stockings, and pointed shoes are very much Kris Kringle. It’s a striking visual reminder that, hundreds of years before Brom came along, the traditional concept of Santa Claus came from a combination of Saint Nicholas and Odin.
Even the Belsnickels are a mashup of Germanic legend, Americana, and horror archetypes. Sure, they carry the same birch switches as their keeper, but many of them are of the Shawnee tribe, so they also wear ceremonial Native American garb. And because each one was bitten by Krampus as a means of passing on immortality, they all take on his physical traits of claws and gray skin, similar to a werewolf or vampire. This hybrid creature is a far cry from the more traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel represented by Dwight on The Office.
And isn’t that a huge part of what Christmas is about: the mixing of different folklore, religions, and cultural imagery? That deft blending of influences alone is enough to place Krampus in The New Christmas Canon. But where most holiday tales feature characters that embody such a hodgepodge of ideas without ever recognizing the history behind it all, Brom’s novel actually calls out the differing origins, then pits them against each other. And because it also functions as a work of horror and dark fantasy—and because it has so much to do with the unforgiving realm of nature—not all of the legends get out alive.