Krampus, 'Twas the Night and Crafting a Christmas Tradition

The call to preserve America's Christmas-honoring heritage seems to grow louder with each passing year. So when I sat down four years ago to research the history of Christmas in America, which would form the foundation of my fantasy book, The Krampus Chronicles: The Three Sisters, I expected to find a clear path. Like many people, I believed America's relationship with Christmas to be a long and constant one, nearly synonymous with the flag and bald eagle. But I was mistaken. It turned out that many holiday traditions that I always held dear weren't exactly what they seemed. And Christmas folklore I'd never even heard about quickly caught my attention.

As Stephen Nissenbaum observes in his book, The Battle for Christmas, America's relationship with Christmas has been not only at times tenuous, but also has been one of evolution. Nissenbaum's descriptions of the Yuletide celebrations before the mid-nineteenth century seem more akin to college students on spring break (there's a reason the Puritans had the holiday banned) than the current chaste rendition that combines such varying imagery as the baby Jesus and Santa Claus.

Yet even with this fickle history, no time of the year presently uses the word tradition with such unyielding reverence than the Christmas season. From annual family gatherings to community festivities, holiday traditions are seen as the bedrock to the year; consistent and unmovable events -- almost as sacred as the institutions they are called upon to represent. But what makes a tradition? The famous historian E.J. Hobsbawn coined the phrase "the invention of tradition" when examining the rise of nationalism in the twentieth century. But what about the invention of Christmas traditions?

The progression of both the religious and secular aspects of Christmas aren't mutually exclusive -- and some argue that Christianity commandeered the winter solstice celebrations for its own use (remember, Jesus' birth date wasn't provided in the Bible) -- but it's still worth tracking the evolution of the less pious traditions without thought to religion's role, particularly with the creation of the modern Santa Claus.

Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem, "'Twas The Night Before Christmas," embodies much of what we think about when it comes to Santa Claus and his Christmas Eve arrival. But "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" less reflected the standard traditions of its time when it first appeared in 1823, and more helped shape, with the assistance of Thomas Nast's illustrations, the iconic Santa Claus we know today. But even this seemingly innocent poem is not without controversy. The true author of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" continues to be debated, helped in large part to Professor Don Foster and his book, Author Unknown, where he lays the textual evidence for why a man named Major Henry Livingston could be the poem's actual writer.

But regardless of whether Clement Clarke Moore or Major Henry Livingston wrote the Christmas poem, it doesn't change the fact that up until its popularity spread during the nineteenth century, the holiday images presented in "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" were not widely accepted outside of Dutch households. Therefore, the folklore that we commonly associate with Christmas is fairly new to America.

After looking into the origins of the Santa Claus figure presented in "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" as well as the historical St. Nicholas, it's apparent that old legends have always been capable of gaining new momentum, and no folklore perfectly captures this trajectory in the twenty-first century than Krampus. As "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" sparked readers' imaginations in the nineteenth century with its portrayal of the rather elfish and jovial Santa Claus, his scarier companion, Krampus, had remained, perhaps appropriately, in the shadows. Although Krampus, known colloquially as the "anti-Santa," is a mythical creature that predates Christianity, it has experienced a surge of interest over the past decade. From parades (Krampuslauf) to films, particularly the eponymous movie, Krampus, coming out this December, it seems the holiday season can no longer escape this horned beast.

It's difficult to say exactly why the intrigue surrounding Krampus has skyrocketed. Perhaps for a generation that grew up with Harry Potter, and a pop culture that's always on the lookout for the next classic fantasy creature to reinvent (e.g. vampires, elves, zombies) the time is finally right for this darker Christmas beast to emerge. And like the sugarplums in "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" it's possible that the holiday imagery, once thought to be new and exciting over a century ago, has finally become stale.

The Krampus Chronicles: The Three Sisters isn't the Christmas story I set out to write four years ago. But I couldn't be more pleased. Instead of rehashing familiar holiday tropes, I stumbled across an author controversy, the antithesis to St. Nicholas, and an ancient tale of three sisters, and weaved them together in this historical fantasy story.

And, maybe, that's all it takes to craft a Christmas tradition.