Being a midwinter festival with roots in pre-Christian cultures, it is no surprise that Christmas revolves around food: in times gone by, the survival of the community was dependent on having organised enough high quality food to get everyone through the barren and freezing winter period. Today, we’re bombarded at this time of year with imagery of Christmas pudding, mince pies, turkey and roast potatoes.
But the principle of consumption runs much deeper than brandy butter and Brussels sprouts. Picture the nativity scene. The baby Jesus lies in an animal’s feeding trough. He is, from day one, constructed as food. Indeed, later in his life the theme is expanded upon. Being the Messiah and all, Jesus is normally thought of as a powerful individual, performing miracles, recruiting dedicated followers and teaching the spellbound masses. But he was also known as the Lamb of God – lamb being an edible (and doubtless delicious) animal in many Mediterranean cultures and also one that was apt for slaughter. And he insisted on his followers eating – literally, as far as Christians are concerned, not symbolically – his body and blood. Thus, in a way, Christmas invites us all to participate in the idea of symbolically eating the Son of God.
But there’s a flipside to that coin. We don’t just eat; we can be eaten. In many traditional Germanic cultures, Santa Claus – that benign giver of gifts to good children – had an evil counterpart: Krampus. Krampus would target naughty children and abduct them in a bag, carrying them away to eat them.
Krampus is a consumer of things. In one local variant, people are obliged to give the beast (i.e. young men running amok in costume) schnapps, a principle that chimes with the general mythological and ritual idea that we must make offerings to appease the gods. If those offerings have to come in the form of one of our own, then so be it; the gods are hungry and demand their tribute.
Today, there is a Krampus parade in Graz, Austria, and, interestingly, signs that the tradition is gaining a footing in America, with Krampus parades springing up in Philadelphia and Seattle. Is this a reaction to the sanitised and saccharine Christmas culture that reigns supreme in today’s commercialised world?
Either way, eating is bound up with Christmas at a deep symbolic level. Perhaps if brands understood this better, they could turn this to their advantage in terms of creating resonant Christmas experiences, evocative TV adverts and even special Christmas products.