The European tradition of Krampus Night has come to Detroit.
On Krampus Night, a scary horned character sniffs out who’s naughty, and then the fun begins
This story has been updated to fix the spelling of Luke MacGilvray's name in some references.
Tired of celebrating the same old holiday traditions? Are you disaffected with Santa and his elves? Do you seek an alternative to eight dashing reindeer? Something a little edgier perhaps? Less commercial?
An alternative celebration has jumped the Atlantic from southern Germany and Austria to 15 or more U.S. cities. It is Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and it has been celebrated in Detroit for six years now. Who knew?
Thought to have been a character in pre-Christian folklore, tacked onto the legend of St. Nicholas, Krampus is a frightening horned character with the body of a goat and an improbably long tongue. He appears on Dec. 5, the eve of the saint’s feast day. In Detroit, Krampus Night occurs on the weekend closest to Dec. 5.
On St. Nicholas Day in Germany, children leave their shoes outdoors to receive treats from Saint Nick if they were good or birch twigs if they were bad. But the legend of Krampus, celebrated in Bavaria, Austria and some Eastern European countries, kicks the twiggy gift up a notch. Alpine legends say Krampus will abduct naughty children and beat them with a bundle of birch branches. He often wears a basket on his back to carry the kidnapped tots away and, in some accounts, he eats them.
Here in Detroit, he’s a scary-looking but relatively benign demon who sniffs out the naughty and spanks them, comically drawing laughter and flashes from cellphones rather than cries of fear.
Krampus Night in America
Krampus is becoming better known in the U.S. with appearances on the Cartooon Network — even a Scooby-Doo episode — and he’s the centerpiece of a couple of holiday horror movies.
In Europe, Krampusnacht usually includes a procession of as many as 100 Krampuses led through the streets by St. Nicholas. Many U.S. cities follow suit.
In Bloomington, Indiana, this year, more than 3,000 people participated in the fifth annual Krampus Night parade, making it the largest Krampus celebration in the U.S. Philadelphia’s event has morphed into the Parade of Spirits that embraces other mythological beasts from the dark side. Other cities hold Krampus balls, runs and pub crawls.
Multi-cultural Detroit has embraced the Germanic Krampus much as we revived a French and Indian legend in our early spring celebration Marche du Nain Rouge. For us, Krampus is a larger-than-life individual who makes his appearance at the Krampus Night celebration at the Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood.
He’s the highlight of a party that benefits Burners Without Borders’ backpack giveaway program for the homeless and Toys for Tots. Attendees got discounted admission if they brought unwrapped toys and canned goods. This year’s event also had a silent art auction that raised over $1,000 for Burners Without Borders. About 300 people attended this year’s event.
The evening also included the Krampus Black Friday Bazaar of local crafts people, a Bad Gingerbread house competition, and a Fugly Sweater contest.
A second highlight was the Christmahanakwanza Variety Show Spectacular, described by the organizer Anthony DVS as “a bad children’s play” with lip-synching to holiday favorites and burlesque performances. You must be at least 18 to attend.
DVS, pronounced “devious,” is an electrician by trade but organizes a slew of events annually with his wife, who goes by the single name Dekilah (rhymes with Delilah).
DVS has always been drawn to the “art created by artists in their darker more introspective moments.” He and Delilah host at least one show a month throughout the year, such as an October masquerade and exhibition called Damned.
They started Krampus Night in 2011, consistent with their desire to exhibit the unusual and bizarre. “We didn’t want it to be against the religious aspects of Christmas,” DVS said. “We wanted to poke fun at the commercialization of the holidays. And that’s so easy to do.”
Appropriately, the appearance of Krampus himself is labeled Season’s Beatings, because once he ascends his throne in the ballroom, he invites one and all to straddle his lap for a spanking. Like his Santa counterpart, he poses for photos with all comers. A horned monster switching adults’ bottoms makes for some pretty hilarious social media posts.
Detroit’s own Krampus
Luke MacGilvray is the guy behind the Krampus mask. The painter, sculptor and writer also has a day job as an engineer for Bose. One of his artistic quirks is that he attends his exhibition openings incognito. “I like the anonymity of dressing up for my shows,” he said. “It gives you freedom to do whatever you want.”
Krampus Night is celebrated in Bavaria but not in northern Germany. So despite the fact MacGilvray lived in Germany for two years, he’d never heard of Krampus until he came back to Michigan.
When he heard that Anthony DVS’s Krampus-themed event lacked an actual Krampus, he felt compelled to fill the gap.
“I just happened to have some facial prostheses laying around. I had a gorilla suit,” he said. “I just threw it all together and came down as Krampus.” That was in 2011 and MacGilvray has upgraded his costume each year since, eventually buying theatrical goat legs on stilts and a very realistic mask.
MacGilvray is a unique embodiment of Krampus. His custom-made, pliable, full-headed mask moves with his facial muscles, allowing him to portray a more subtle beast. While most Krampus characters do little more than growl menacingly, MacGilvray portrays Krampus as a cinematic villain who allows the spectators to turn the tables on him and give him a spanking, too.
“I can smell the naughty on you,” he snarled at several people lined up for their switchings, drawing delighted laughter from the crowd at last week’s event.
“The spirit of Krampus Night is it’s an alternative to the traditional handed-to-you-on-a-platter Christmas,” said MacGilvray.
Find out about more than a dozen DVS events for 2017 on Facebook.