I love Christmas. I love the decorations, the music, and the general gaiety of the season. It’s a time when society tends to come together as a whole to go out of their way and be good to one another. Christmas also makes for a great horror theme, and few movies do it better than Michael Dougherty’s Krampus. What sets Krampus apart from the rest of the pack is its use of Christmas as more than a mere backdrop; it truly explores what the holiday means.

Christmas is a strange religious holiday with pagan undertones that is celebrated by a multitude of faiths and secular people alike. It’s perhaps this curious blend of wassailers that has allowed the single day celebration to morph into this mega-marketing bonanza that begins the day after Thanksgiving here in America. This maddening drive of consumerism is exactly how Krampus opens. A crazed wave of shoppers trample an innocent retail worker as the sweet sound of Perry Como’s ‘It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas’ plays. Being someone who worked several holidays as that lowly retail employee I can tell you that this is all too real.

We leave the fight for consumer goods to find that Max is in his own fight. The fight to defend Santa’s honor – and a bit of his own. Whether or not Max truly believes in Santa, or if he is simply grasping for the last straws of order in all the chaos of his family life is hard to say. Either way, Max becomes our embodiment of the true spirit of Christmas along with Grandma, who has already been scared back onto the straight and narrow. This crossroads from childhood into adolescence is a tough one when you’re asked to leave behind something so magically pure like Santa Claus. As a parent of a very young child, I wonder if it’s not better to be upfront about Santa and deprive her of that magic but set a precedence of not lying to her, or if those years of magic are worth that moment of heartache. There’s a reason so many movies about Santa Claus deal with adults no longer believing.

The spirit of Christmas isn’t in the consumerism, fancy decorations, or extravagant parties. 

However, the true essence of Krampus is the interaction with family. Having to spend time with that one side that you would rather forget existed. The sly competition on who is living the better, more successful life. Turning a celebration of togetherness into a parade of lies. Dougherty has brought to life each of these dynamics right down to the ungrateful aunt who complains about how the food was cooked.

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself that if this is the argument I’m making about the meaning of Christmas, then it’s a pretty bleak outlook. You’re not entirely wrong. Krampus is holding up a mirror to society, showing us what we’ve bastardized Christmas into. When our title character finally shows up, he brings with him a horde of  Christmas icons that once were meant to bring joy. Now they are here to bring terror. The same way we’ve taken a joyful holiday and morphed it into one of the most stressful times of the year.

The true essence of Krampus is the interaction with family.

In the end, Max gets his wish for Christmas to be the way it once was. Or so he believes. Unfortunately, once you’ve gone so far it’s hard to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. The memories of the past linger. What was said and what was done can’t be erased, no matter how happy of a face you put on. And so Krampus ends darkly, with Max and family doomed to live a lie for eternity. But we’re also left with our biggest message. The spirit of Christmas isn’t in the consumerism, fancy decorations, or extravagant parties. Thinking otherwise dooms the holiday even for your most innocent of kin. The lesson being to enjoy the “spirit” of the holiday, not just the “things” that comprise it.

I still enjoy the decorations, the food, and the music, but I also think a lot more about my family. The magic of Christmas is it gives us an excuse to slow down and truly be present with our loved ones, if even only for a day. The family in Krampus find out too late that there is so much more to the holiday, and that’s a mistake that we should all strive not to make.