While rosy-cheeked holiday celebrants sing and clink their punch glasses, while children play in the snow and eat sugar cookies, while beautifully-wrapped gifts are exchanged -- the Krampus watches.
For all the sweetness of Christmas, the Krampus embodies the bitter. He is the counterbalance to the excess joy of the holiday season, forcefully reminding children to behave themselves. This hairy goat-like demon carries lashes and baskets to cart away naughty children, operating in direct contrast to Saint Nicholas. Terrifying children into good behavior is a long-established tradition: children around the world are warned of the Boogeyman, El Coco, or Baba Yaga. But in Central Europe, children know that bad behavior will be severely punished by the Krampus.
Not All Is Merry and Bright
Most people are familiar with the benevolent old elf, Santa Claus. Santa watches the boys and girls of the world all year long, and if they’ve been good, he sneaks into their home and deposits gifts on Christmas day. Candies, toys, and other presents for the good children; for the naughty ones, a lump of coal. This hard-working character is divided into two distinct entities in central Europe. In Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and many other European countries, Saint Nicholas takes the preferable job of delivering gifts to the good children. He delegates the role of punisher to the Krampus, who seems to thoroughly enjoy his task.
Naughty children fear the goat-man-demon. He stands tall on cloven hooves and has a hairy pelt of thick black fur, massive curving horns protruding from his skull. Sometimes he has one hoof and one human foot, but it too is covered in horrible hair. His mouthful of fangs cages a long prehensile tongue which he uses to lash out and snag naughty children from the streets, then toss them into his wicker basket.
The Krampus carries jingling chains and a bundle of birch branches to whip at children’s legs, punishing them for their year of transgressions. A wicker basket or sack is strapped to his back, but unlike Santa’s sack of toys, the Krampus’s bag is empty. Instead of delivering gifts, he collects naughty children to drown, eat, or cart off to Hell, where they will learn the value of good behavior. If this image doesn’t scare naughty children into good behavior, perhaps his loathsome gifts will.
The Krampus is known to deliver a bundle of silver or gold painted birch branches, called Ruten, to the home of naughty children. Their parents wisely display the branches as a year-long reminder that if the children do not behave, the Krampus will hear about it. Like America’s Elf on the Shelf, Krampus branches remind children that their naughty behavior does not go unnoticed. They’ll know they have much more to fear than a lack of gifts on Saint Nicholas Day.
Saint Nicholas’s Dark Assistant
Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th. In life, the kindly saint was known for his extreme generosity and altruism. Over time, the saint evolved into a caricaturized figure who goes around and visits the homes of all the good little boys and girls in central Europe. If the children remember to leave their boots out (and perhaps a sweet for the saint and some treats for his horse) he will deposit a coin, candies, or other small gifts. Unlike Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas only carries rewards. Well-behaved children rush to discover their gifts first thing in the morning on Saint Nicholas Day.
The night before this sweet celebration is called Krampusnacht. On this night, the Krampus roams the streets, hooves clattering and chains jingling in warning. Everyone snaps to attention and makes sure they are on their best behavior. But for those children who insist on misbehaving, the Krampus doles out punishment. Minor infractions warrant whipping and swatting from his birch branches, but the more serious offenders risk being tossed into his wicker basket, never to be seen again.
Naughty children who have been spared by the Krampus may instead be terrified into goodness by the appearance of a birch branch in their boot instead of a gift from Saint Nicholas. He may be cruel, but the Krampus is not indiscriminate; he only goes after the naughtiest of children and gives fair warning before his arrival. There is opportunity to repent.
The Origins of the Krampus
Though the Krampus’s origins are clearly rich and storied, they are as opaque as a blizzard.
Like many old midwinter rituals, the Krampus was adopted into the Christian Christmas traditions. In direct contrast to the Christian Saint Nicholas, the Krampus was assigned the duty of punisher -- or even executioner -- and their partnership was first recognized in the 17th century. However, the story of the Krampus goes much deeper than that of Saint Nicholas.
The legend of the Krampus has been passed on for so long and has endured so many evolutions, it is hard to see where he truly came from. One popular theory is that the Krampus is the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld and daughter of Loki. Hel dwells in a castle stuffed with punishments awaiting the evil and cruel. She begat many demonic children including evil wolves and serpents, and some sources suggest one of her evil children is none other than the Krampus. This theory, however, is distinctly modern: very few sources supporting this theory predate the 2000s.
Some of the Krampus’s roots are visible in pagan rites. Many modern Christmas festivities have a pagan history, including more pleasant traditions inlcuding decorating holiday trees, burning yule logs, exchanging gifts, and feasting. If the Krampus isn’t immediately evident in traditions like these, his characteristics are visible in the spirit of the Percht. Perchten are pagan spirits with many similar attributes: they are two-legged human/goat hybrids wearing heavy furs. Like the Krampus, Perchten often have one foot of an animal and one of a human. Their appearance keeps people in line during the winter months, and they know who has been behaving and who has been naughty. Perchten appears as a beautiful woman to deliver gifts to the good people (much like Saint Nicholas) but reveals her cruelty to those who misbehave. The modern Krampus may have been born of the bad side of the pagan Perchten and the Christian Devil.
Throughout history, Christian groups compared the Krampus with their image of the Devil. They share striking visual similarities and their punishing habits are similar, it’s true. For this reason, many crusades were waged against the Krampus. Throughout history Catholics have tried to unclasp the Krampus’s chains from their goodly Saint Nicholas, but their partnership remains intact to this day. In the 1930s, the fascist Dollfuss regime in Austria banned the celebration of the goat-demon, decrying him as synonymous with the Devil - or as a symbol of the opposition. Of course, this association was relatively modern, as the concept of the Krampus dates back much further. Again in the 1950s, anti-Krampus pamphlets were widely distributed and ignored.
These efforts ultimately backfired. Krampus celebrations have only increased in popularity and have indeed spread outside of Central Europe. The Krampus is now a recognizable figure in most of Europe and has spread to the United States, where he has become a pop culture icon. His image has appeared in many horror movies, supernatural television shows, and even comedies. Beyond the Krampus’s appearance in the media and fairy tales told in the home, he is well-appreciated in the streets.
After the fascists’ attempt to ban Krampus in the 1930s, Krampuslauf events became wildly popular in Austria and Germany. Whether the spike in popularity was a pendulum swing from the censorship, or if it was a backlash from the broad commercialization of the holiday season is unclear. During Krampuslauf, the Krampus is celebrated both seriously and in jest. Translating to “Krampus run” in German, Krampuslauf is an alcohol-fueled parade event in which participants dress in spectacular Krampus costumes in an attempt to terrify spectators. Their costumes are incredibly elaborate and include intricately-carved wooden masks complete with massive horns, sharp fangs, and hairy pelts. The realism is terrifying.
The masks alone would be enough to terrify the spectators, but the faux Krampuses take their roles seriously. Like Saint Nicholas’s dark assistant, they are equipped with birch branches and have no hesitations in using them. Krampuslauf, thankfully, has toned down a bit over the years for modern celebrations, but spectators are still in some danger. Spectators of the event are often chased down and whipped about the legs, reminding them that although the Krampus attacking them may not be real, their transgressions are not ignored. The mythological Krampus is a symbolic reminder of self-improvement and good behavior. Children need only be reminded of the beast’s existence, but adults frequently need to see to believe.
Krampus’s appeal is centered in Austria. In fact, a massive Krampuslauf event is held annually in Graz. Just as the sun sets, the beasts erupt onto the streets, harass onlookers, and put on an incredible show. This event, scarier and more real than the Western Halloween parties, attracts thousands of tourists every year, ready to be spooked into good behavior. Rumor has it that one of the Krampuslauf participants is the real one, further inspiring goodness. Today, Krampuslauf events can be found around the world.
Krampuses, both real and costumed, drink plenty of schnapps on these runs. It does not appease the demon, but he does seem to like it. Krampus may have been invented as a Boogeyman to scare children into good behavior, but the Krampuslauf does a pretty good job on adults, as well.
The word Krampus comes from the German word, Krampen, which means “pickaxe” or “claw.” The name alone is enough to conjure a visceral image of this Christmas beast and spark good behavior.
The Krampus is decidedly cruel and has few redeeming qualities. Yet his actions are not senseless -- one swat from the Krampus is enough to inspire thorough introspection and a resolution for self-improvement. If holidayers didn’t already want to become better people in the new year, Krampus made sure they would.