[Essay] Krampus (2015): Bullying, Religious Trauma, and a Non-Christian View of the Christmas Spirit

As someone who doesn’t personally celebrate Christmas, I’ve grown to have quite a bizarre relationship with the holiday over the years. I grew up in a strictly Jewish household and had very little exposure to Christmas, save for a slew of painful exchanges with peers who’d warn “eternal damnation” if I didn’t convert to Christianity (see also: the brilliant force that is Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass). Now, as a kid, such venomous words from people I cared about led to some downright soul-crushing internalized antisemitism. I was harshly taken aback, because my own culture fiercely forbids fundamentalist teachings, meaning in no way, shape, or form are we allowed to even consider pressuring non-Jews to convert. When I was young, I’d ask myself constantly, “Am I weird for being Jewish?” “Am I bad?” “Why can’t I be normal like the other kids?”

For a long time, I hid my Jewishness as much as I could. I stayed quiet during school Christmas parties and smiled through conversations about Easter or church. I watched Jesus Saves-type films with my friends to become as palatable to them as possible. Even as an adult, I struggle so much with cultural shame that every time I open up about it (including right now), I feel an overwhelming urge to rewind myself like Funny Games and keep my thoughts bottled up instead. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel shattered when I continually receive scathing threats of Hell or passive aggressive remarks about my culture and other non-Christocentric cultures and religions. While I myself am Jewish, Judaism is only one of so, so, so many vibrant and beautiful cultures that exists outside of Christianity. Even so, the sting of ignorance burns anyway, and I often look inward rather than facing the problem head-on like I should, and I still often wonder:

Am I weird? Am I bad? Is there something inherently wrong with me for not being Christian?

I first saw Krampus in the winter of 2015 at a cozy theater in Olympia, Washington. Because of my upbringing and (bless her) my mom’s slightly understandable distaste for the season…which, admittedly, led to some of my own unjust grinchiness, Michael Dougherty’s festive chiller was actually one of the first Christmas films I’d ever seen. Thinking back, I can safely blame/thank this film for single-handedly changing the trajectory of my life, including injecting me with a Yuletide nature I never knew was possible.

For those who’ve not seen it yet, Krampus goes as follows: stressed and overworked parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), their children Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), and Tom’s mother “Omi” (Krista Stadler)—“Omi” translating in this space to mean “grandmother”— are thrown into gorey chaos when Sarah’s family comes into town for Christmas. Max, however, who I’d argue suffers the most out of anyone in this film with the exception of Omi, encounters a particularly devastating dilemma. See, after Max’s callous cousins discover his letter to Santa, they mock the poor kid before ripping a hole in his letter and, subsequently, a (metaphorical) hole in his heart. While the letter at this point is marred but still salvageable, irreparable damage has already been done to Max’s psyche. In a frenzied state of despair, he ends up tearing his letter apart, throwing the tattered scraps out the window directly into the bitter cold. Tragically, this act seals Max and his family’s fate, causing MUCH grimmer consequences than just emotional turmoil. Ultimately, the boy’s sad but temporary lapse of faith beckons a most evil presence to invade his home, and here we meet Krampus, a hooved and bloodthirsty demon stemming from ancient lore, whose sole purpose is to destroy anyone whose Christmas spirit has become compromised.

Krampus (2015) | Legendary Pictures

When I saw Krampus in theaters, I was overwhelmed (in a good way) by the brand new and wildly “festive” experience. Having had a years-long chip on my shoulder prior about the holiday—coupled with some embarrassingly rabid Christmas envy that I must own up to—I was surprised by how instantly endeared I was to the film. Not only did it have one of the best casts in the whole wide world (Collette and Scott alongside David Koechner, Allison Tolman,…and the voice of my love and fellow Jew Seth Green?!), it was stocking-stuffed with humor, decadence, and terror including one of the scariest endings to a horror film I’ve ever seen. I suppose, as the Grinch’s heart once grew three sizes, my Christmas spirit blossomed the day I saw Krampus.

Krampus (2015) | Legendary Pictures

Since 2015, I’ve little by little warmed up even more to the Christmas season. First, I started collecting small glittery ornaments, then I moved on to cinnamon-scented pinecones in decorative bowls, then I marathoned Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas films all season, and now I’m cohabitating with a singing light-up pine tree that’s seven-and-a-half feet tall.

Am I a product of assimilation? Vehement consumerism? Or is all of this just genuine—albeit belated—Christmas passion? To be honest, my guess is that it’s a mix of all three, a trinity of sorts based in labyrinthine convolutions. There’s no easy explanation for my draw to this stuff. Though my formerly stagnant and unnuanced negativity towards Christmas was not fruitful either, certainly not for my loved ones and certainly not for myself. I’m still navigating how to remain critical of Christocentricity while simultaneously examining how my own actions can additionally cause harm. At the end of the day, my strange enthrallment with Christmas is complicated and so am I, because I’m a human being and a heavily-flawed one at that.

Krampus (2015) | Legendary Pictures

Like Max, I too was bullied as a kid, and I carry that with me to this day. My arduous thoughts get the better of me constantly, but I know for a fact that there’s nothing wrong with me for being Jewish or queer or disabled or neurodivergent, and there’s nothing wrong with ANYBODY for that matter for having these or any other marginalized identities. If I had to define the Christmas spirit in the most Krampus-y way possible, I’d say that the scariest demons creep down your chimney when your sense of self is murky or lost. While I’m clearly no expert on Christmas itself, the palpable excitement I’ve observed during the season looks a whole lot like hope to me. Though I now cherish many memories of my limited experience with the holiday, I have to also acknowledge that Christmas will never truly feel like a genuine part of me. That being said, I don’t have to understand Christmas to know just how special it is to have something to hold onto, even if that “something” is just a nebulous trace of magic.

Dylyn C.S.
Dylyn C.S.

is an article writer working on a gothic horror video project. She has contributed to Hear Us Scream, Slay Away, and more horror sites.

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