Jennifer Wilber is a writer who also works as an English tutor and substitute teacher. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Krampus Is Coming to Town
Though still not as well-known as his jolly, gift-giving counterpart, the devilish Christmas character Krampus has been regaining notoriety in North America and many parts of Europe in recent years. With his demonic part-goat, part-devil appearance, it is shocking that such a character could have anything to do with the most wonderful time of the year, but he has had his own place in Christmas traditions for centuries nonetheless. Krampus is celebrated throughout the western world in elaborate celebrations and parades, as well as in the media via movies, comic books, video games, and more.
Who Is Krampus?
The demonic Krampus represents is everything that jolly ol’ St Nicholas is not. While St. Nicholas travels around the globe delivering toys and treats to all the good little boys and girls, Krampus is busy delivering punishment to their naughtier peers. In some traditions, Krampus merely leaves birch twigs in the shoes of naughty children who were expecting candy or gifts from St. Nicholas. In more extreme traditions, however, he beats them with his birch sticks for misbehaving throughout the year, or even carries them away in his sack to be tortured or eaten in his demonic lair. While Santa Claus enjoys being left a snack of milk and cookies while he’s making his rounds delivering Christmas presents, Krampus would prefer it if you left him schnapps. While St. Nick or Santa Claus represent a reward to children who are good all year, Krampus ensures that naughty children receive their due punishment.
Historic Origins of Krampus
Though Krampus is generally thought of as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, he has is origins in pre-Christian folklore. Long before Christianity spread through Europe and adapted local pagan traditions, there were stories of Krampus-like figures. The name Krampus can be traced back to the German word Krampen, meaning claw. He is believed to be the son of Hel, the ruler of Helheim, the underworld realm of the dead in Norse mythology. As with many aspects of European pagan traditions, Krampus was eventually rebranded to fit into the Christian tradition as a Christmas character reminiscent of the Christian devil.
Though he had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, Krampus traditionally appears as part of the early December Christmas celebrations in Austria and Southern Germany. He begins his journey, according to traditional folklore, the night before St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. This night is often referred to as Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht. On this night, Austrian and German children would leave their shoes outside their doors. In the morning, good children would find gifts and treats left by St. Nicholas, whereas naughty children would find their shoes filled with birch twigs, courtesy of Krampus. In certain countries, Krampus provides a year-round reminder to children to behave by mysteriously leaving birch sticks for children who misbehave throughout the entire year.
While the originally pagan Krampus was incorporated into the Christian Christmas celebrations as part of the Christianization of Europe, he eventually fell out of favor due to his similarities to the devil. The Catholic Church made attempts to ban celebrations related to Krampus during the 12th century because of his pagan origins and apparent association with the devil. Despite attempts to suppress Krampus’s involvement in Christmas, by the 17th century, Krampus was firmly connected to St. Nicholas as his counterpart, and once again became an integral part of the Christmas season in Austria and many Christian European countries.
Keeping the Krampus in Christmas
A renewed interest in Krampus spread through Europe in the 1800s with the emergence of Krampuskarten, or Krampus cards. These greeting cards featured artwork of Krampus terrorizing children or chasing after women alongside humorous poems or rhymes. Over the years, the overall style of the Krampus artwork featured on these cards changed from featuring a traditionally frightening Krampus to a cuter, more cupid-like version.
More attempts were made to banish Krampus from Christmas celebrations in Europe in the 1920s and again 1950s for religious and political reasons. These attempts were in vain, however, as Krampus regained popularity in popular culture toward the end of the 20th century, which continues today.
Today, Krampusnacht celebrations and Krampus parades take place all throughout Europe and are gaining popularity in North America. In these celebrations, young men dressed in furs, horns, and masks roam through the street with cowbells, causing a frightful commotion in a tradition known as Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run. For some, participating in Krampus celebrations is a way of keeping ancient cultural traditions alive. Others see them as a way of subverting the growing commercialization of the season. Still others are just in it to have a good time. Over the last decade, Krampus has been featured in numerous movies, comic books, television shows, and video games. Whatever the motivation, Krampus has permeated popular culture, despite attempts to remove him from our society’s imagination.
Sources and Further Reading
- The Origin of Krampus, Europe's Evil Twist on Santa | Travel | Smithsonian
The mythical holiday beast is once again on the prowl, but beware, he's making his way across the Atlantic
- The Origins of Krampus, The Christmas Demon
Come Christmas Eve, children throughout the world will patiently await a big, bearded man in a bright red suit. He travels by herd of reindeer and...
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber
Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on January 05, 2018:
One of the members of my church celebrated Krampus Night with his family.
Kristina Hearn from Iowa on December 21, 2017:
Interesting article! I've heard of Krampus, but didn't know the history behind it. Thanks for sharing! I didn't know there was a movie out either. Looks scary!