Sunday, 6 December 2015

Krampus (3 Stars)

Christmas is a part of the western world's tradition. It's considered to be a Christian tradition, celebrating the birth of Christ, but any scholar will tell you that December 25th wasn't Jesus' birthday. The date isn't specified in the Bible records itself, but we read that sheep were being kept outdoors. This was not usual practice in winter because of the erratic weather conditions in Israel. It's more likely that Jesus was born in the spring or summer. The general consensus is that he was born in August, although this isn't a certainty.

Christmas was first celebrated in the fourth Century A.D. under the rule of the Emperor Constantine. He is remembered as the emperor who made Christianity the official religion of Rome, ending hundreds of years of persecution. This is only partly true. What he actually did was combine the three largest religions in his empire and appoint himself the leader of the new mega-religion. The customs and rituals of the three religions were combined. There was already a midwinter festival in the two other religions (December 24th). This became Christ's birthday, although it was soon shifted to the following day. Many other traditions were absorbed into the new religion, which bore the name "Christianity" but looked outwardly like the polytheistic religion of Babylon. The Babylonian Gods became Christian saints and their statues were moved into the churches.

The most thorough book dealing with this subject is "The Two Babylons" by Alexander Hislop. It's a fascinating book which I can recommend to Christians and non-Christians alike, but I have to warn you that if you are a member of the Roman Catholic Church you might find it offensive.

When Christmas spread across Europe it adapted itself to local traditions. It might seem strange to Americans who have a unified picture of Christmas that there is so much variation in central Europe. Christmas celebrations can be different from one large town to the next. Almost everywhere has the figure of an old man in a red cape (or a brown cape in Russia). This person is called St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas. It might seem that they're the same person, but they're a combination of different characters. There was a real person called Nicholas who died on December 6th, 343, but the Norse God Odin is the main figure behind Father Christmas. He flew through the sky bestowing gifts at the time of the midwinter festival.

One thing that varies from region to region is whether or not Father Christmas travels alone. Sometimes he has elves with him to assist him, delivering gifts when he has too much to do. When I lived in Stuttgart I discovered that he travels with a companion called Ruprecht (sometimes translated into English as Rupert). In the Stuttgart area he wears an identical red cape to St. Nicholas. On December 6th the two men visit children. If a child has been good he receives presents from Nicholas. If he's been naughty Ruprecht beats him with a stick. In neighbouring areas Ruprecht often wears a darker cape to differentiate him from Nicholas, but he's always the character who punishes children. Interestingly, December 6th is only a preliminary judgement with minor gifts. On December 24th all children, including those who have been purged by Ruprecht's beating, receive presents from the Christkind, i.e. from Baby Jesus himself, who is portrayed as a little blond-haired boy who flies through the sky.

In Austria and Bavaria Nicholas comes alone on December 6th, but someone called Krampus visits a day earlier. December 5th is called Krampus Day, and in some areas people even give each other Krampus Cards. Krampus is a horned goat who walks on his back legs. The similarity to pictures of the Devil is obvious. Krampus only visits the naughty children, while good children lie in bed at night trembling, hoping Krampus will pass them by. Like Ruprecht, he punishes naughty children, but he's a lot more aggressive. Children are warned that if they're very naughty Krampus will take them away and kill them. In some parts of Austria the parents are taken away instead to punish the children by making them live alone. In many Austrian towns there are Krampus parades, where local men (and women) dress up as Krampus and a prize is given for the best costume.

The film itself is a fairy tale that bears only a superficial resemblance to the Krampus legends. In the film a young boy called Max loses the Christmas spirit. He rips up his letter to Santa Claus asking for gifts for his family, and he wishes that they will be punished instead. Krampus arrives and goes on a killing spree, murdering everyone except for Max himself.

The film relies on random scares. It doesn't really make sense. The gifts come alive and kill the people, including the gingerbread men biting back. The part of the film I enjoyed most was the comedy at the beginning, when people are shown fighting one another on Black Friday to buy Christmas presents. When the horror itself began I was less impressed.

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