The Pope, The Chef & Krampus: Merry Yikesmas!

A good holiday special is hard to find. For every A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its perfect mix of nativity-play poignancy, and Schulzian dark humor, there’s at least one It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, in which the usually-lovable Peanuts kids mope around spewing unfunny sass like the younger siblings on every sitcom made since 1979. (Sally Brown writes her Christmas theme: “To me, Christmas is the joy of getting.” “Giving!” Charlie Brown corrects her. “Like wow,” she says.)

If pop culture seems littered with the shells of similar misfires, it’s because getting it right is actually a pretty tall order. A holiday special should be sweet without being cloying; it should nod to the “reason for the season” without turning itself into an altar call. The difficulty of walking the line between the sacred and the secular is one reason why most of them are so much dreck.

All of which made this year’s holiday offering from the Travel Channel’s food-porn hit No Reservations such a surprise. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and bestselling author, as well as the program’s host and guiding intelligence, has put together an hour of television that is at once a masterpiece of the “Culinary Journey Through Our Grand Traditions” genre of holiday specials, and a spoof of the same. The show pulls you along like a fizzy dinner party chased by a drug-addled dream (including a bubbly rendition of a Catalan carol about a pooping log sung by Norah Jones), and ends in the kind of mayhem that may seem appropriate after long days with too many relatives and too much to drink. Spoiler alert: Firearms are involved.

As many envelopes as Bourdain pushes, however, there was one part of his holiday vision that proved too much for his network. Moving into the last act of the special (after asking various chefs about global Christmas cuisines, including the all-important question “What Would Jesus Eat?”), Bourdain pops into a Bavarian restaurant for sausage and conversation. Talk turns naturally enough to Krampus, Santa’s ill-tempered companion throughout Austria and Germany, who goes far beyond coal in the stocking when reminding children that he knows who’s been naughty or nice.

For Krampus fans—who are becoming legion—this Yuletide boogeyman comes and goes much too quickly. And it turns out Bourdain thought so, too. What he’d hoped to air is a bit of mischief that would have elevated the No Reservations holiday special from simply very good to subversive classic. In homage to the stop-action ghost of Christmas specials past, Bourdain made his own Krampus Carol, complete with a horned demon licking the faces of children before he beats them with a stick:

It really is a hoot, especially if you grew up, as I did, on the Island of Misfit Toys. But more than that, it’s a gem of folk religion that reminds us how far removed contemporary ways of celebrating the birth of Jesus are from traditions that have much stronger claims than our own on being normative practice. In other words: Krampus isn’t weird, we are. Down through the ages, the true meaning of Christmas may not have been Sally Brown’s “getting” or Charlie Brown’s “giving,” but living with the dread that the Baby Jesus may have mixed feelings about growing up to die for your sins; that both grace and gifts come at a cost.

Perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, Bourdain’s Krampus Carol ends up capturing something important about the relation of folk beliefs to institutional doctrine. When Krampus raises his clawed fist to punish these poor cherubs, we see on the wall behind them (blink and you’ll miss it at 1:42) the smiling mug of none other than Pope Benedict XVI.

Just a random jab at Christendom and its discontents? Maybe. But Benedict is there because these claymation kinder are his kin. When he was just a Bavarian boy called Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope knew Krampus well—perhaps too well.

In fact, the Pope once told a Krampus carol of his own, in a video message to the people of Tittmoning, the small town near the Austrian border where he lived from the ages of two to five. In his memoirs, Benedict calls Tittmoning his “land of dreams,” and his holiday memories do begin with warm glow of a reverie:

“Before Christmas we walked through the hallways of the kindergarten and rehearsed to sing,” the Pope recalled. “And then we beheld in the hall where the Christmas tree stood. It remains for me truly a dream, reaching to the ceiling and on top bending over a little more.”

Soon Saint Nikolaus would arrive, dressed in gold brocade vestments that made the future pope “completely sure that all the other Nikolauses were fake, but that this was the real one, the only real one.”

What happy memories for the boy who would be pope! But then Benedict’s dreamy Alpine Christmas took a darker turn. At the end of the hall, he remembered, “two sisters held the doors closed, so that Krampus, who raved frightfully outside, would not come in.”

Part of the kindergarten’s Christmas celebration, he explained, was the reading aloud of all the naughty things the children had done that year, a catalogue of the transgressions of preschoolers. As a teacher moved through the list, the doors would bang and shake, and the two nuns charged with guarding them would pretend that they could hardly keep the doors closed, so vile were the children’s sins, so great was the wrath of Krampus.

“That was much scarier than if he were there,” Benedict said, “because what you only imagine, what has not yet happened, is much more dangerous than what you can actually see.”

As the recitation of the kindergartners’ offenses continued, at the particularly naughty bits, the sisters holding the doors would shout: “Now we can still hold the doors shut, but if something worse comes up, we can’t do it anymore!”

“That was the strongest motivation,” Benedict said, “to try to do nothing in the next year that would lead to the sisters eventually not being able to hold the doors closed.”

Let’s pause here to recall that when Benedict XVI was Cardinal Ratzinger, he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office of the Roman Curia formerly known as the Inquisition. In matters of doctrine, naughtiness was something he could not abide. So popular was he as prefect of the CDF that he had his own fan club, the motto of which was “Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981.”

Is it possible that the moral outrage and aggressive “smackdown” rhetoric that made Ratzinger such an effective Grand Inquisitor could have had their origins with those kindergarten doors straining to contain the devil? Would it be too facile to follow this logic to the conclusion that if John Paul II was the jolly Father Christmas of popes, then Benedict XVI is his Krampus?

Yes and no. Benedict XVI has proven himself a much warmer figure as pontiff than he was as hunter of heretics. Yet how can it not be relevant that, for the leader of a billion Catholics, memories of the celebration of the birth of the savior are entwined with a nightmare of a horned demon raging at the kindergarten door?

Folk traditions—whether they are expressed through stories of Krampus, Charlie Brown and his friends, or an island full of misfit toys—echo into more institutional forms of belief through the memories of the boys and girls who become the men and women who shape religion. Particularly in a faith with global reach, it is easy to forget the influence (and the horror) of the local.

Now, thanks in part to the unlikely apostle Anthony Bourdain, one local skeleton in Christianity’s closet is stepping into the light. Though his Krampus Carol ended up on the cutting room floor, it’s on the verge of going viral online. My prediction: Krampus will soon take America by storm.

Uh-oh. I think that’s him knocking now. As they say in Tittmoning: Fröhliche Weihnachten and may two stout sisters always guard your door.

Peter Manseau is the author of five books including the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and the forthcoming One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, from Little, Brown.