Have you noticed you can’t go far this Christmas season without seeing the krampus, a devil-like consort to Saint Nicholas? All of the sudden, the devilish fellow seems to be everywhere.
But it is far less likely that you have encountered another Christmas-time mythic character, that of Frau Perchta. She makes the Krampus seem amiable to boot.
Perchta asks,”have you been weaving your flax little girl? Have you been good? Are you eating the awful gruel and fish that are to be consumed on my holiday?” If the answer is no, the poor children are disemboweled, and their insides are stuffed with straw and stones. So, you know. Don’t mess up. By comparison to the two of them, Saint Nicholas’ ‘present’ of coal seems benign.
We may wonder what the sense is in these dark figures, during a time that we mistakenly assume should be lighthearted and merry. All three of them are the same in this one way: All of them represent the darkest time of the year, a time when the fields lie fallow, when the unconscious gestates. Sounds pretty abstract, what it means is that there’s a part of our conscious mind that wonders “What have I done well this past year? What can I do better in the future?”
There is also something to be said for the fact that in the parts of the world these myths came from, it is bitter, bleak and awful cold.
The solstice is a passage from darkness back to light. And out of that can spring guilt. The Germanic psyche demanded something else, a force both benevolent and terrible, to keep them in line. Krampus charges out of the frigid night, howling, beating the christ out of women and children with sticks, and carrying the especially bad ones away.
If we are in doubt of the sacred origins of holidays, we might consider some of the ideas put forth in Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane,
The New Year coincides with the first day of Creation. The year is the temporal dimension of the cosmos. ‘The world has passed!’ expresses that a year has run its course. At each New Year the cosmogony is reiterated, the world re-created, and to do this is also to create time – that is, to regenerate it by beginning it anew. This is why the cosmogony myth serves as paradigmatic model for every creation or construction; it is even used as a ritual means of healing.
Thus, the role served by this entity which rewards and punishes, is to cut what we might call the karmic ties with the previous year. This seems an unusual attribution for the seemingly benevolent Santa Claus, but this is only because the holiday has become so desacralized that he has merely become a stand-in, a cardboard cutout, signifying nothing. This connection between karma and the eternal return of the holiday cycle is not without precedent.
Again we can turn to The Sacred and the Profane, “…to Indian thought, this eternal return implied eternal return to existence by force of karma, the law of universal causality. Then, too, time was homologized to the cosmic illusion (Maya), and the eternal return to existence signified indefinite prolongation of suffering and slavery.”
These karmic ties don’t require an actual belief in karma within the Buddhist or Hindu framework of reincarnation. What it refers to is an element of our memory. Consider something that you own that has a great deal of “sentimental value.” Pick it up. Hold it in your hand. Think about the people you associate with it. Grab hold of those emotions, and travel back to the time that the object brings you to. That’s your karmic tie. You are bound to those things.
The same is true of the memories and emotions we hold onto of those we love, who are now gone, and of the life we lived which is also gone. Of course, outside a framework that espouses transcendence, these are neither positive nor negative in themselves, but they are attachments. From this, we can see that a mythic symbol serving some kind of ethical function would arise, when it comes to recapitulation and renewing. To renew, the soil must be tilled. Some attachments can be maintained but others must be severed.
The winter solstice is a passage from darkness back to light, and out of that can spring guilt, no pun intended. It is the negredo process, the fallow soil, frosted over; petrifaction. We need something that comes from outside, a bestial or demonic Other, a force both benevolent and terrible, to keep our sorry asses in line.
The joyous, peaceful facade of the deritualized festival, stripped of any reference to a surrogate victim and its unifying powers, rests on this basis of sacrificial crisis attended by reciprocal violence. That is why genuine artists can still sense that tragedy lurks somewhere behind the bland festivals, the tawdry utopianism of the “leisure society.” The more trivial, vulgar, and banal holidays become, the more acutely one senses the approach of something uncanny and terrifying. The theme of holiday-gone-wrong dominates Fellini’s films and has recently surfaced in various different forms in the work of many other artists.
Maybe something could be drawn from the relation between the much the kinder, gentler Coke-a-Cola Santa, Saint Nick, Christ and his misattributed birthday (if “he” had one at all), and these Pagan throwbacks from the Swiss Alps. It’s late and I don’t care enough at the moment.
This much I know: Krampus and Frau Perschta would totally kick both Santa and Jesus’ ass. That’s for damn sure.
(This article first publishing in The Immanence of Myth by Weaponized Press.)