Krampus (2015): A Theological Review

My son Aidan has a taste for the quirky and expressed an interest in seeing the movie Krampus, the Christmas fantasy, horror, comedy mash-up.

I was intrigued to go because of the Christmas mythology the movie was tapping into.

Rooted in European folklore, Krampus is one of the Companions of Saint Nicholas. The Companions go by different names in different cultures, and their role is to provide a dark counterpart to St. Nicholas. Here's the Wikipedia description (slightly edited) of the Companions:
The companions of Saint Nicholas are a group of closely related figures who accompany St. Nicholas in German-speaking Europe and more widely throughout the territories formerly in the Holy Roman Empire. These characters act as a foil to the benevolent Christmas gift-bringer, threatening to thrash or abduct disobedient children. Jacob Grimm associated this character with the pre-Christian house spirit (kobold, elf) which could be benevolent or malicious, but whose mischievous side was emphasized after Christianization. The association of the Christmas gift-bringer with elves has parallels in English and Scandinavian folklore, and is ultimately and remotely connected to the modern Christmas elf in American folklore.

Names for the "dark" or threatening companion figure include: Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Krampus in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Friuli, Hungary; Klaubauf in Bavaria, Austria...Schmutzli in Switzerland...The corresponding figure in the Netherlands and Flanders is called Zwarte Piet or "Black Pete," and in Swiss folklore Schmutzli, (schmutz meaning dirt). In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the čert (Devil) and anděl (Angel).
Santa mythology has always had a moral aspect, rewards for the good children and punishments for the bad children. The visitation of Santa has always been a bit ominous. Consequently, children are taught to "watch out" for Santa:
You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I'm telling you why

Santa Claus is comin' to town

He's making a list
He's checking it twice
He's gonna find out
Who's naughty or nice

Santa Claus is comin' to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
In our modern, kinder Santa mythology the punishment you get is being ignored by Santa, or getting a lump of coal in your stocking. This reflects our progressive, liberal sensibilities when it comes to disciplining children, the use of what psychologists call "negative punishment," the withdrawal or withholding of something positive. Time outs, grounding or taking away something cherished by the child (e.g., iPhone, car keys, video games, etc.) are all forms of negative punishment--punishment by subtraction/removal. Getting ignored by Santa for being naughty is a form of negative punishment.

Generations past, however, were less squeamish about positive punishment, bringing/adding something negative (like pain) into the life of the child. Spanking is the quintessential example of positive punishment when it comes to child discipline. And that's where Krampus and the Companions of St. Nicholas come in. Be good, children, or you'll get either St. Nicholas or Krampus. Presents or a beating.

The movie Krampus, then, is set up as a Christmas morality tale. The movie opens with the darkest of Christmas images--the frenzied mobs of Black Friday. We see shoppers knocking over the employees and people fighting over presents. It's basically Christmas retail hell. The nadir of the scene happens when a fight breaks out between the children participating in a Nativity play.

Which is potent imagery for Christians, violence around the manger of the Prince of Peace.

In the opening scenes, then, we get a vision of a completely decadent town, a town that, because it has lost touch with Christmas, has lost its soul, community and moral compass. 

From these scenes we then switch to the home of Tom and Beth and their two children, Sarah and Max. Also living in the home is Tom's Austrian mother, the German-speaking grandmother who is affectionately referred to as "Omi" by Max and Sarah. Omi is the one who, later in the movie, tells the story of the Krampus to explain what is happening to the family and town.

Irritating family members soon show up to spend the holiday. And paralleling the retail hell scene, we are entertained with vignettes of holiday family hell as this dysfunctional family interacts. It's a Christmas hell all the way around--from the aggressive shopping to the horrors of family dysfunction.

All of this eventually summons Krampus who, along with some evil assistants, punishes the town. What follows is comedy/horror scenes reminiscent of the Gremlins (1984) movie.

And yet, from a theological perspective, the movie is more than a simple morality tale, a story of bad people getting Krampus rather than St. Nick. The real story isn't about moral just deserts, the real story is about enchantment.

What ultimately summons Krampus isn't wickedness but the loss of enchantment. Though he's getting a bit old for it, Max still believes in Santa. This is symbolized by the note he has once again written to Santa. But when his horrible cousins come they tease Max unmercifully for still believing. They find his note to Santa and humiliate Max by reading and mocking it aloud at the family dinner table.

Devastated and shamed, Max's belief in Santa snaps. Through tears he rips up the note to Santa, opens a window, and throws the pieces into the winter wind. And that--the loss of belief--is what summons Krampus.

We are led to believe in the movie that Max is that last one in his family and his town who, in words of the movie, still believes in miracles--still believes in Santa, still believes in enchantment. And this belief acts as a shield and buffer for the town. The town is wicked, but with one believer still left in the town the town has been spared a visit from Krampus. But as soon as Max rips up his letter to Santa, the moment the town is given wholly over to disenchantment, Krampus comes. When faith evaporates hell comes to earth.

Don't believe in Santa? Fine. You'll get Krampus instead.

This story is told again by Omi later in the movie. Omi has seen Krampus before. Like Max, as a child Omi lived in a town that became filled with coldness, hostility and inhumanity. And like Max this had seeped into Omi's home, a home that became filled with conflict. And like Max, Omi was the last person in her town who believed in Christmas. And when Omi gave up belief, despairing as Max despaired, she unwittingly summoned Krampus who came and took her family and the entire town away.

There's a lot of powerful theology here. Belief in miracles--faith, belief, enchantment--acts as a buffer, protection that keeps us from sliding into conflict, violence, and inhumanity. Once enchantment is lost Krampus comes. The Devil arrives and we descend into the hell we've be asking for.

More than a simple morality tale, where the bad people get what's coming to them, Krampus is ultimately about the moral consequences attendant to the loss of enchantment--the hell and inhumanity created upon earth when we stop believing in miracles.

Phrased differently, Krampus is a movie about enchantment as grace.

A grace that saves us from the hell we deserve.

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