By Jenn Pocock
It’s Christmastime on H Street in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C.
Bells are jingling.
A man in a Santa suit marches down the sidewalk blurting Christmas carols on a sousaphone.
Snarling demons with glowing eyes paw at shop windows, beckoning to children and asking, “Have you been naughty?”
If the yuletide season has seemed more like Halloween of late, it’s because a contingent of horned, long-tongued beasties is slowly making its way west from the forests of Germany.
Make way for the Krampus, the dark counterpoint to the benevolent St. Nicholas. Come Advent season, ill-behaved children can look forward to a visit from the Krampus, who roams the streets carrying birch switches. If they’ve been really bad, the kids will be stuffed in sacks and carried away to the beast’s lair.
December 5 marks the traditional Krampusnacht, or night before St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6). Despite its origins in Germanic folklore, the Krampus tradition has spread to other European countries and, relatively recently, has jumped the Atlantic to appear on America’s shores. In addition to D.C., the Hyde to Santa’s (or St. Nick’s) Jekyll has become the focus of festivals and parades in places as varied as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Bloomington, Indiana. Last year, the Krampus was even featured in holiday episodes of Grimm and American Dad.
So what’s the appeal of organizing events where people dress up as devils to frighten children? Strangely enough, it may be feelings of disconnect during a time that is generally thought to be inclusive that are driving the proliferation of the Krampus—an attempt to inject a sense of community into what has increasingly become a seasonal shopping frenzy.
“[In the United States], there’s a huge focus on consumerism attached to the holidays,” said Jen Horan, a transplant to D.C. from the Netherlands. “Where I lived, the small towns always came together with [someone from] the volunteer fire department usually [portraying] Sinterklaas (a character based on St. Nicholas).”
Others I spoke to at the Krampusnacht event in Washington felt the tradition was an important reminder to appreciate the yin and yang of the natural world.
“I think the Krampus tradition is fascinating to [Americans] because it’s so different from the relentlessly cheerful, sanitized popular American version of Christmas, and alludes to a time when human cultures were closer to nature and the natural cycles of the year,” said Joanna Barnum, a first-time Krampusnacht participant. “Even in modern times there is something satisfying about celebrating the interplay between light and dark, life and decay.”
In keeping with that spirit, the Krampusnacht Charity Walk on H Street seeks to help children, not just scare them. Piers Lamb and Mavi Clay started the parade in 2012 with a small group of people who wanted to dress up and have fun while connecting with the community. The event featured fire performers, a tribe of folk dancers, and Santa—yet another variation on the St. Nicholas figure—and Mrs. Claus.
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Lamb may play Santa, the benevolent counterpart to the Krampus, in the parade, but his dedication to helping children goes beyond donning a red suit. Lamb runs a charity called Santa’s Cause, which works to put presents in the hands of foster children who may never have had a present addressed to them.
“I want these children to know they are not just a number or statistic—that others care about them for who they are. And [that] one of those people is Santa,” said Lamb, who says 100 percent of all money raised goes to displaced youth.
What began with ten people dressed in Krampus suits the first year blossomed to include more than 50 participants in 2013. As the ghoulish beasts paraded the streets playfully pawing at children and windows, an envoy at the head of the troupe handed out slips of paper explaining the Krampus tradition to people who stopped to watch with puzzled looks on their faces. A group of Morris dancers (a folk style with English roots—but who’s counting when it’s all in good fun?) trailed behind, twirling, banging sticks, and jingling with bells on their ankles.
Altogether, the Krampus tradition evolving in the U.S. may be one cobbled together from bits and pieces stolen from other parts of the world, but it’s one with a good—albeit slightly twisted—sense of humor and great feeling of togetherness. And that’s what this season is all about.
Jennifer Pocock is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow her story on Twitter @Jenn_Pocock.