Recently, Quartz published an article that purported to explain why European Christmas still featured a number of interesting “monsters” of folklore while American Christmas didn’t. The article did a great job of listing out all the European variations of the monsters that punish bad children at Christmas time. However, it completely failed to explain why America didn’t embrace these monsters. In fact, it misidentified the Austrian characters in the parades as “Krampuses” when they’re actually “perchten,” the companions of Perchta. (To be fair, even Salzburg tourism has given up trying to explain to Americans that there’s a difference.)
First, if you’re a fan of my books — especially Snowed — you know the main reason why America embraced the jolly old elf from Moore’s poem over any of his European versions. But if you’ve not read Snowed, read this excerpt from Chapter 9.
Chapter 9 Excerpt from Snowed
Mr. Reilly’s class rolls around. Without their leader, Darren’s followers fail to find a voice. Mr. Reilly appears more serious than usual, which is quite a feat.
“I’ve set aside the curriculum I’d planned for today in favor of something a little lighter.” He approaches the chalkboard and picks up a piece of chalk. “I realize it’s a cardinal sin to talk about Christmas before Thanksgiving, but since we have entered the Industrial Age in our reading, let’s talk about modern American cultural values and ideas that stem from that time period. A little history-lite, if you will. But I assure you it ties into what we’ve been studying.”
He writes: A Visit from Saint Nicholas
Oh, great. Another one of Mr. Reilly’s tangents. I’m pretty sure no one else talks about this stuff in their American history classes.
“The American poet Clement Clarke Moore published this poem anonymously in eighteen twenty-three. What else was happening that year? Anyone?”
No answer. He writes on the board: The Monroe Doctrine.
“In early December of that year, President James Monroe declares America’s neutrality in European conflicts. Step-by-step, America continues to distance itself from the UK and Europe, further establishing its independence. Meanwhile, this poem single-handedly established Christmas culture in America, distinguishing it from British and European customs and traditions. To this day, this depiction of Saint Nicholas remains the dominant iconography for the American celebration of the holiday.”
So, America was already trying to distance itself from both the UK and Europe. The tides of separation were hastened by both the Monroe Doctrine and American sentiment. While Moore’s poem captured that sentiment in a powerful way, it was by no means the catalyst of it. Since the war of independence, Americans had been forging their own identity, much of which is still founded on an idealism that has no room for whipping fathers and child kidnappers.
No More Epiphanies
Also, America is largely a Protestant country. We don’t celebrate Epiphany the way much of Europe does. And since much of the folklore around Perchta and other Christmas creatures focuses on Epiphany, we’ve shaken off that entire line of folklore. Which also means that we probably wouldn’t know the difference between Krampus and the perchten. The perchten proceeded Perchta on her rounds to drive out evil spirits. (The whole perchten thing is very pagan, as is Perchta herself. The Catholic church simply gave up trying to stamp out the pagan festivities in the Alps because they were too strong.)
The UK’s Separation from Europe
Despite Germany’s influence on English Christmas, you won’t see Krampus shaking his chains in the halls of Buckingham Palace, either. That’s because the UK never really embraced those characters in the first place. European ideas were foreign ideas, and that was that. Believe me, the rest of Europe does the same to the UK. For example, you won’t see many Frenchmen celebrating Halloween; they’re more than happy to explain it’s an “Anglo-Saxon” holiday.
America’s New Romance with an Old Devil
So, why is America now reaching for those same whippers and kidnappers?
Globalization has opened up access to other cultural traditions in ways we’ve never seen before, allowing outside influences to infiltrate our collective conscious in the U.S. But that’s just one part of the whole picture. The U.S. has been opening up more to European ideas — single-payer healthcare, gun control, and free education top the more progressive political tickets.
The Death of American Idealism
Meanwhile, American idealism is merely a ghost. Almost daily mass shootings by murderers slaughtering schoolchildren; the killing of unarmed black Americans at the hands of the police who are supposed to protect them; the death of Americans who can’t afford healthcare; rampant, baldface racism and sexism; tax cuts for the corporations at the expense of the poor; and our severely partisan, dysfunctional government — to say people are jaded is an understatement. We see more taken from us than given, our “freedoms” destroying us.
That’s why Krampus is supplanting St. Nicholas, because we feel the monster’s lash more heavily each day. Santa Claus is too saccharine; we yearn for something more authentic to our experiences.
Climate change also plays a role. Recall that these “Christmas monsters” are primarily from the much colder Alpine regions and the Netherlands — places where winter is especially deadly. It’s no wonder as America’s weather turns more severe thanks to climate change that we feel the teeth of winter more keenly. Therefore, Alpine lore feels right to our frostbitten bodies.
Gruß von Krampus
So now you know why your Facebook feed is filling up with a devilish character wearing a wicker basket full of screaming children. Be good to one another or else you might find him dragging you from bed on the night of December 5th, to take you somewhere hotter than Los Angeles…
Christmas is coming…or is it Krampus? Find out today!