Catharsis and Krampusnacht.

krampus2013The Krampus, for those who don’t know, is a central European Christmas figure… a sort of a bestial demonic creature with horns and fur who walks the streets on Krampusnacht and beats bad children with sticks and puts them in his sack to carry away to his lair.  He is a pre-christian figure, but has persisted through to the modern day.  It is still traditional in the area for young men particularly to participate in Krampuslaufen, in which celebrants dress up as Krampus and drink and engage in a sort of a procession.  Krampusnacht normally happens on the fifth of December, the night before the feast of Saint Nicholas.

We went out on Friday night to take part in the Krampuslauf.  I suppose it’s more of a bar crawl than a procession, but it’s good enough for Bellingham.  It’s a day late, but the weekends are easier, and there’s a group that does a Santa-themed bar crawl every year, so we like to do our Krampusing at the same time and the same place as those folks.

I am not of central european descent… this is not my tradition.  But I love legends like the Krampus.  Things like this show the persistence of old myth in the face of overwhelming cultural change and homogenization, and old myth is where our most human stories come from… stories of terror and pain and death and beauty and joy.  We have retained a lot of stories about romance and royalty and triumph, but at least here in the U.S. we have lost a lot of our stories about death and darkness.  This is a problem because stories about this kind of unpleasantness teach us part of what we need to know about being human.  They help us learn to deal with grief and pain and the ever-present spectre of death.  I’m strenuously in favor of introducing some of these darker traditions into the modern American lifestyle… things like Dia de Los Muertos and Krampusnacht.  I personally feel more comfortable appropriating the culture of white folks, but I think all of it has a positive influence, honestly.

Krampus seems to have been a figure of the wild, with his horns and his hair and fur.  Based on the aspects that have survived Christianization, he seems to my uneducated eye to be related to other such figures, such as those in the Wild Hunt myths prevalent in much of Europe.  Indeed, he bears a traditional resemblance to Knecht Ruprecht, who was sometimes cast as a leader of the Wild Hunt.  The Wild Hunt is a cultural manifestation of human fear and reverence for the wild, and witnessing the Wild Hunt was said to be a precursor to a disaster or tragedy.  Wild Hunt myths have even translated to American culture as the Ghost Riders folktale of the American west.

In Europe, revels like Krampusnacht and the traditions that preceded Halloween seem to fall in the autumn and winter, times that were dark and cold and difficult, especially for pre-industrial societies.  These were times of fear and uncertainty… and revelry, particularly these masked revels, allowed human kind to set their humanity aside, to take on the aspect of beasts and to cast aside social mores (to a point), and I can’t help but think that these revels must have been a momentary catharsis… a temporary release from the fear inherent in being human.

When we mask ourselves, we are both not ourselves and are perfectly ourselves.  For shy people like myself, the opportunity to abandon my identity is a welcome chance to come out of my shell.  That combined with alcohol-fueled exuberance creates an environment in which I can leave behind my insecurities and release the tensions that have built up… by shouting, and laughing, and dancing… it facilitates catharsis.

I think that as animals who, perhaps uniquely, are aware of their own mortality, catharsis is important.  We exist under an ever-present burden of fear and anxiety, even when we are not directly aware of that burden, and without periodic release, it wears on us and creates misery.  Catharsis gives us a moment to lay down that burden, and to rest before picking it up again.  Without that occasional chance to rest, we become sick at heart, and potentially sick in the body as well, and I think that especially for folks in creative professions, it can reduce the ability to be productive as well.

Too much reveling, however, and the dance looses it’s cathartic benefit.  I see this all the time; people chasing that catharsis… that feeling of release.  The ritual becomes hollow, and the celebrants continue on anyway, frantically going through the motions in hopes that they will gain the same effect as they have before.  With too much revelry, intensity fades, the effect becomes harder and harder to achieve, and what is left is empty and grotesque; a clanging chaos with no purpose, a falsehood that lacks the genuity that lends the ritual real substance and meaning.

This emptiness of experience is perhaps a result of Tanha, the Buddhist thirst to cling to pleasurable experience and avoid the painful.  This desire is noted within the Four Noble Truths as a source of human suffering.  I think it’s clear at this point that I’m not here to relinquish pleasurable experience, and also that I’m not here to strive for spiritual perfection… but I do crave substantial, genuine experience.  If we take our revelrous catharsis when it presents itself, it can be a wonderful thing.  If we attempt to force it, we will come away feeling hollow and unsatisfied.  That’s not a difficult choice for me to make.

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