Wednesday, 23 December 2015

We Wish You a Scary Christmas

If we were to read aloud some of the lyrics of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” slowly, and without the feel-good music and images of food and gifts, the words quickly become ambiguous. Why must we watch out? Why mustn’t we cry? Unless, of course, Santa Claus is not all that he seems. If Santa Claus has a dark side, then it becomes rather concerning that a strange old man sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. 

Santa's dark shade?
(That little girl doesn't care, as long as she has her apples)
The trailer for the new release Krampus (dir. Michael Dougherty) plays on the ambiguity of these words and links them to a version of the story behind the Germanic celebration of Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6th. Having left out their boots the night before, good children awake to find that their boots have been filled with small gifts by the Saint; bad children are instead dealt with by his demonic, goat-like counterpart Krampus. This could involve being thrown into a bag and beaten with a birch rod or even being taken back to Hell. This part of the story is still celebrated in Alpine Germany, Austria, and some of the adjoining regions by young men running around their towns in costumes and masks (and with no small amount of Glühwein in their stomachs).

The Finnish genre-bender Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, dir. Jalmari Helander) has the same words and black humour at the centre of its English-language trailer. Rare Exports is more of a thriller than a horror comedy, but the tongue-in-cheek feel is still there: it is a story of a group of Sami reindeer herders responding to hard financial times and attacks by Santa’s Little Helpers (who turn out to be dirty, beared men who inexplicably shed their red suits part-way through the film) by capturing a Little Helper and attempting to sell him to a visiting researcher.

Putting aside the black humour and the mythological reinterpretation, along with the troubling suggestion that the rosy-cheeked gentleman from the North Pole only wears a big hat to hide his horns, both films turn on the hinge of their domestic drama. The family members in Krampus are at each other’s’ throats  long before “the shadow of Saint Nicholas” gets a chance, and Rauno and Pietari are struggling through the aftermath of the loss of a wife and mother along with their monetary issues. It seems a straightforward mythic reading to say that the monsters are present in these films so that the respective communities must unite in opposition to them; it’s equally fair to say that monsters can be simply used “to keep kids in order and in their place”, as Christoph Waltz did with a smile when he explained the Krampus story to Jimmy Fallon.

A Christmas monster both evidences the duality at the centre of many myths and festivals and allows us to skip over some of the more uncomfortable ambiguities in our celebration of Christmas. Once we start to wonder why Santa Claus watches us sleep or how he has access to our houses, the house of symbolic cards swiftly falls. We then have to wonder why parents who spend the year warning their children of the dangers of strangers (especially those who offer candy or wish to touch them) suddenly flock to local shopping centres to place their kids on the knees of costumed men, as if summoned by “Jingle Bells” coming on the air. No, it’s better to fear a goat-man: that way we don’t have to wonder why Santa Claus always seems to show up with gifts and candy-canes once the parents are asleep, let along probe any double-entendre of him coming down the chimney.

Luckily, the Santa Claus who makes the problematic overtones of his role visible with this
chimney joke gets taken off the streets by Rutger Hauer’s vigilante here immediately after telling it.
Despite Christmas being the most magical time of the year, it’s also the most stressful for many. The celebration brings families together but can bring a lot tension along with it. And it certainly stretches a lot of budgets. For these reasons and others, it’s a season with a high suicide rate – another shadowy flipside to the Season to Be Jolly. When it is looked at in this light, it’s certainly understandable that Christmas monsters still have their place in the modern celebrations of the festival. Perhaps spooking each other into familial or communal togetherness with ghost stories or Krampus costumes can be a cheap and enjoyable addition to the standard cultural fare of Christmas crackers, late-night gift shopping and off-colour jokes involving mistletoe. If the goal of most monster stories is to bring the community together around the fire, away from the things that go bump in the night, they can certainly do this job at Christmastime too.  And most of all: be good to each other (for goodness’ sake). 

Jason Archbold (our wonderful guest blogger) is a Cotutelle PhD candidate at Macquarie University and the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-Universität. His dissertation explores morals and ethics in apocalyptic fictions. When he is not dodging zombies as part of his research, he can be found investigating cultures through cooking or buried in a mass of comic books.

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