Media: 11-25-2013

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Krampus: The Grinch That Saved Christmas

By Whatsblem the Pro
November 25, 2013

We’ve told you about the Cacophony Society; we’ve told you about their role in creating Burning Man, flash mobs, the film Fight Club, and SantaCon; we’ve introduced you to Al Ridenour and his psychomedical-cum-burlesque arts troupe, the Art of Bleeding.

Al Ridenour is not one to rest on his laurels. His latest project, Krampusfest, is rapidly coming together in Los Angeles for this year’s Yuletide.

Working from an idea by comrade-in-arts and co-producer Al Guerrero, Ridenour, Guerrero, and the troupe – many of whom have been active both in Cacophony and at Burning Man – are poised to unleash a robust echo of traditional European Krampus festivals on Southern California. Wearing elaborate, unique Krampus costumes made largely by hand and from scratch, the L.A. Krampus Troupe will make scheduled and unscheduled appearances throughout the month of December.

Krampus is a Yuletide boogie man who acts as the yang to Saint Nicholas’ yin. With a cruel switch of birch wood in hand, he takes care of the naughty list from December 5th until the 21st, punishing children for their misbehavior. Regional traditions vary; depending on where you wander, Krampus morphs and mutates into Knecht Ruprecht, Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, Rû Clås, Bûr, Bullerclås, Zwarte Piet, Père Fouettard, and others. He arrives traveling with Saint Nicholas, and his various guises range from that of a wizardly old bearded man who looks like a second Saint Nick, to a Moor in fancy dress. . . but the canonical Krampus, the oldest of Krampuses, is a hideous demonic or demon-like abomination, first seen in obscure medieval iconography depicting St. Nicholas taming a chained-up demon.

Typically, the European traditions involve young men of the community dressing as the local interpretation of Krampus, having a parade accompanied by Saint Nicholas to mark his arrival, and running loose in the streets bearing chains and/or bells. Sometimes they carry birch switches or whips, sometimes they distribute booby-prize gifts (like lumps of coal), and sometimes, in the milder traditions, they hand out candy. It is often customary to offer them schnapps or other strong drink, to placate them.

Krampusfest, like SantaCon and like the Art of Bleeding, carries a sulfurous whiff of mayhem to us from a less safe and more primitive world. It reaches through and beyond the lurid horror commonly found in original-version fairy tales, in which brutality, beheadings, immolation, dismemberment, and horrible, violent death of all kinds is featured prominently; Krampusfest reaches deeper and farther back for its elements of terror. One does not touch the truest archetype of Krampus without touching all the implied menace of prehistory; the tradition has its deepest roots in the adrenal, primitive-dark sympathetic magic of forgotten hunters gathered ’round fires on the edges of eldritch forests. That primal, mist-obscured, stag-headed terror of which Krampus is an agent will allow Krampusfest to carry out its mission with sublety; it will surely be wild, but the blatant mayhem and hobo-style public drunkenness of an old-school SantaCon wassail won’t be necessary.

The website of Ridenour’s L.A.-based Krampus troupe explains:

“While the Cacophony Society was known for a general attitude of cynicism and satiric manhandling of sacred cows, Krampusfest encourages an inquisitive and respectful regard for the practice of Krampus traditions (along with playful reinterpretations!). Krampus Los Angeles is in correspondence with Krampus groups overseas in an effort to ground our activities in authentic practice and understanding of the tradition.”

Al Ridenour works on a Krampus mask - PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Ridenour works on a Krampus mask – PHOTO: Phil Glau

I caught up with Al Ridenour early this week for a Q and A:

Whatsblem the Pro:
Al, what is Krampus?

Al Ridenour:
Well, the name probably comes from Austria, but it’s also used in Southern Germany and elsewhere. He’s a folkloric devil character who basically plays bad cop to St. Nicholas’ good cop, when Nicholas is off doing his gift-giving. . . and I don’t mean Santa Claus here. All this mythology is associated with December 6th, the feast day of the 4th century saint. The Nicholas figure dresses like a medieval bishop and is accompanied by a few Krampuses on house visits.

There are also Krampus runs, which consist of lots of these groups, each traditionally with their own Nicholas marching down the street. The bigger Krampus runs, the ones people here are more likely to see videos of, can be very elaborate with pyrotechnic effects and such, but in the smaller Alpine villages where this stuff originates there’s not really an organized parade route; it’s more just like a bunch of groups running around the town all at once — and there’s more risk, i.e., fun; that is, spectators get chased and get some light smacks with switches. . . especially women.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How much of that will you be reviving in L.A.?

Al Ridenour:
We’re actually trying to do all of it. We put the word out offering a traditional home visit, but somehow no one has jumped on that. Maybe something about having their kids scared shitless.

Actually, I should say that kids are never really smacked with switches. We certainly wouldn’t be doing that, and from talking to Austrians and what I see in videos, it’s really just about the Krampus throwing scary theatrical tantrums and rattling his chains and cowbells.

Whatsblem the Pro:
But you’ll be doing a Krampus run?

Al Guerrero suiting up - PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Guerrero suiting up – PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Ridenour:
Yes, a run and some other events. We’re doing a public run in conjunction with theDowntown Art Walkon December 12th. The Krampus L.A. Troupe will be there in full costume, and we even have an ‘Austrian’ band marching alongside. They’re actually a Balkan band, the Free Range Orkestar, but the one I talked to lived in Austria, and they’re learning Austrian-style folk tunes. So there’ll be music and switch-swinging and we’ll have a Saint Nick giving out some sweets, too.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How many of you are there in the troupe? Can other people just join you in costume?

Al Ridenour:
Yes. That’d be great. We just want to touch base with any participants first. We’re just asking them to arrive early to check in with us to go over some guidelines. Because switches are involved, and it’s a new potentially scary tradition, we just want to take that precaution.

There are about fifteen of us with full costumes, maybe even a couple more. Some people are still working on stuff, so I’m not sure.

Whatsblem the Pro:
The costumes look pretty elaborate. Do you expect a lot of people to show up in full Krampus suits?

Al Ridenour:
Well, that’d be wonderful, but I know the suits I made took quite a lot of time. Unfortunately, I don’t know a way to do it quickly or that cheaply, really.

At first you might just think “gorilla suit plus devil mask,” but if you look at the European costumes, there’s much, much more going on. Still, simplified costumes are okay, particularly for the other events. In fact that’s part of the reason we added other masquerade-type events, so that folks who just want to wear furry boots and their horned headdress but don’t want to go whole hog will also be able to take part. We’re doing Krampus Ball, and a Krampus Rumpus where we’re mixing up traditional stuff — like an Austrian brass band, and a Bavarian group doing traditional dance and music accompanied by alpenhorn — with goofier costumed parody bands like The Kramps and Krammpstein. Of course, the Krampus troupe will attack those events too.

Jason Hadley (foreground) and Al Guerrero (right) ponder a naughty child's fate - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Jason Hadley (foreground) and Al Guerrero (right) ponder a naughty child’s fate – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Whatsblem the Pro:
So how did you make those costumes? They’re wonderful.

Al Ridenour:
Everyone approached it somewhat differently. There are certainly some elements you can buy ready-made; in fact, you can buy a whole traditional suit ready-made online from European websites, if you want. . . but it’ll cost you a grand or more.

We did a lot from scratch as well as adapting some ready-made stuff. I’m not really sure how everyone made what they did. My masks, I actually used lots and lots of pieces of cardboard, hot-glued together. Then over that, coats of Bondo mixed with Fiberglass resin. Some epoxy putty details, some more tooling of the plastic, and you’re ready for paint.

The horns are all real; I used goat and kudu on my biggest one. In Europe, the masks are traditionally carved from wood. I did sculpt my teeth from wood, but I’m just not a woodcarver. I tried to emulate that chiseled look in what I made, though.

The fur suits are a combination of real fur from old thrift store coats, as well as sewn wefts of bulk synthetic hair sold for braided extensions, along with faux-fur yardage. There’s a lot of raggedness and wisps of long fur on traditional suits, so even if you buy a werewolf, gorilla, or Yeti suit, you need to doll it up a bit. We’re hoping to do some workshops next year, after we generate some interest and get the public acquainted with the look this year.

Whatsblem the Pro:
It does sound like a lot of work. So why are you doing it? Why Krampus? Is this a sort of next step beyond Santacon/Santarchy? An antidote for the creeping sanitization of Santa crawls?

Al Ridenour:
There’s no way to get around the comparison, especially since it was some of us from the old Cacophony Society that started that ball rolling. Honestly, I haven’t been part of that for going on twenty years, so I wouldn’t know anything about sanitized, but I do know it can be fun if it’s new to you.

I was there for the Santa gathering of the tribes in Portland in 1996, when Santa Palahniuk was along taking notes and we ended up facing off with riot police in full riot gear, so after that they started seeming a little anti-climactic, I guess. I organized one, I think, the year later, where the Santas attended the gun show they used to have out at the Pomona Fairplex. That made for lots of nice photo opportunities, but the joke just sort of got old.

The real problem with things like this is, as the numbers grow, the challenge and adrenaline rush diminishes. When it’s just a few of you out there, you don’t feel as safe; there’s more individual risk. As the safety-in-numbers factor sets in, the rush diminishes. Because we’re not just talking about a $35 Santa suit you can buy the day before you get here, we have some built-in safeguards against this thing becoming the same kind of mob scene.

Whatsblem the Pro:
But isn’t the Krampus run you’re doing sanctioned by virtue of being part of the Art Walk?

Al Ridenour:
Yes, and that’s a very good point. It does make it less challenging, but we’ll still be encountering people who have never heard of this tradition, and who won’t like what looks like a bunch of Satanists armed with bundles of wooden sticks. There is always the danger of some radical misunderstanding.

Krampus isn’t just a funny visual spectacle, like a mob of drunken Santas. He directly confronts and interacts; he swats at people, for heaven’s sake. The performers need to be on their toes to make wise judgments about who seems to comprehend what’s happening and might want to be playfully chased, and who to stay away from. It’ll be a balancing act. . . and beyond that one event, we’ll also be doing a secret guerilla-style appearance on December 6th, just to honor the traditional date and the rambunctiousness of the tradition as it’s practiced closer to its source, in the smaller villages where the Krampus runs wild and isn’t presented as a parade.

Mike Biggie strikes a menacing pose - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Mike Biggie strikes a menacing pose – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Whatsblem the Pro:
But again, why Krampus, and why now?

Al Ridenour:
This really just seemed like the last possible moment to make this our own, before someone else took over the tradition, reshaped it, and sold it back to us. Krampus was a figure I always felt close to. My B.A. was in German Culture and Literature, and I had grandparents who spoke German at home, so I felt a little possessive once I discovered him. Then, way back in college, when I first read those passages in The Golden Bough that you and I were talking about, it just set my little heart a-pattering and I began digging for more info. I’ve been watching this thing catch fire with the compilations of Krampus postcards appearing in books and circulating online, and the next thing I know, I’m hearing about Krampus cameos on The Colbert ReportThe OfficeAmerican Dad, and The Venture Brothers. This year I discover that even Walmart is selling a shitty Krampus mask, via their website at least. I guess I felt like I was losing my intimate connection with my buddy Krampus. The only way left to get closer to Krampus was to become Krampus.

Whatsblem the Pro:
And convince a bunch of other people to become Krampus, too?

Al Ridenour:
No convincing was needed; that’s just my story. The others in the group had already grown their own attachments, I’m sure.

What happened, actually, was that in 2012 I finally made it to Austria and Germany to attend some Krampus events, and in the evening after I came home from my first event, I opened an e-mail in my hotel room to find that my friend Al Guerrero from Cacophony was announcing the creation of an L.A. Krampuslauf — a Krampus run — so I was just all over that.

Maybe there was also some aspect among us of wanting to give SantaCon a second try. I remember doing lots of reading on the history of Christmas, and trying to tell reporters that what we were doing was really, in a sense, the ‘real’ way to celebrate the holiday, in that drunken costumed street theatrics have an older historical association with Christmas than the red suit we were all wearing. In Europe they had wassailing. In early America, they called wassail groups Callithumpians. These wassailers would blacken their faces, or cross-dress, or turn their clothes inside-out, and bang on pots and pans and light fireworks while singing drunken songs. When I read about it, it felt a lot more like what we were doing.

I don’t think we could have stated it quite like this at the time. . . but in a way, I think you could fairly say that with SantaCon, we were breaking down that wholesome Coca-Cola character. We were besmirching his reputation by drunken assholery, and thus destroying him so that he could re-emerge in his original form.

Whatsblem the Pro:
There’s The Golden Bough again: Kill the ceremonial king, so he can be born anew. So Spring will come! But Coca-Cola Santa came from Madison Avenue.

Al Guerrero wears the traditional chains - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Al Guerrero wears the traditional chains – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Al Ridenour:
Yes. That version of Santa Claus was created to get people off the streets, to turn the holiday into a quiet family-centered idyll.

The popularization of Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was really part of a concerted effort by New York bluebloods to create something closer to the Santa we know. It’s true he may have been somewhat standardized by those Coke ads, but the basic idea goes back to that poem. . . and what’s funny is that the illustrations that went with it were drawn by a German immigrant, Thomas Nast, and both what he drew, and the poem itself, are still close to the German Belsnickel — or “Pelt Nicholas” — who is more of a sly trickster character than our old familiar Santa. He didn’t leave gifts in your home; he threw treats out into the street to bait kids. They would go for the treats, and he’d crack the whip he carried, to send them scattering. It was much closer to a game, and with his face blackened by soot and the ragged animal pelts he wore, he’s really only a hop, skip, and a jump from Krampus.

The real kicker was the cowbells. Krampus, in a few remote regions, cracks a whip. . . but everywhere he wears cowbells. This noise-making tradition associated with the holidays goes back to the pagan idea of driving away bad spirits at turning points in the year whenever they are likely to menace us mortals. We still have this notion preserved in the idea of New Year’s fireworks and tolling church bells, but it was also part of these costumed Christmas riots with their pot-and-pan banging.

When I heard the cowbells on the belts of the first Krampuses I encountered in Europe, it really hit me that this was my kind of cacophony! I just hope we can make a good run of it.

Whatsblem the Pro:
I hope you can, too. Wassail, Al!