In the last couple of years, there has been a sudden resurgence in interest in Krampus – a Germanic companion of Saint Nicholas who punishes naughty children at Christmastime. From Christmas ornaments and ugly sweaters to illustrated novels and horror films, it seems that Krampus is everywhere these days. But this is hardly a new tradition.
Krampus is most commonly portrayed as a demonic figure covered in dark hair, with goat legs, and one human foot. He has horns, a long red tongue, and occasionally a trail. Krampus carries a birch switch to swat naughty children as well as a tub, basket, or sack, which he uses to carry the particularly bad ones away. Some depictions also feature him carrying heavy lengths of rusted chain, or with his hands chained, and bells.
The name Krampus is said to be derived from a Germanic word meaning “claws”, and if so that’s a very good pun on Santa Claus. And rightfully so too, since Krampus is considered the dark side of Old Saint Nick. The real Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop present at the First Council of Nicaea, where he was arrested for assaulting a fellow bishop who dared doubt the authenticity of the Holy Trinity. So maybe it’s not a far leap between the jolly old man we know for giving gifts to children and a darker figure who punishes those who have done wrong.
Christianity, and with it Saint Nicholas, became popular in the region in the 11th century, while the tradition of masked devils running amok appeared around the 16th century – most commonly in Medieval church plays. By the 17th century, Krampus was forever paired alongside Saint Nicholas and the tradition began to spread into Austria and other neighboring countries.
Some sources suggest that Krampus has a pre-Christian origin, though there’s little substantial evidence of this. If he did appear before Christian conversion of the Alpine region and the resulting syncretization, it seems likely that he came from a Slavic region where figures like Krampus are common. While Germanic paganism doesn’t have any known figures similar to Krampus, the Slavs have one. Chort is described as a demon covered in black fur, with goat-like hooves and horns, a tail, and a long red tongue featured in many depictions of Krampus. Chort is also known for carrying off babies and small children. However, there is no more evidence for this correlation than there is for any other, but it’s one that I like the best.
Krampusnacht is traditionally celebrated on the 4th of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day. In the Krampuslauf, young men dress up in furs and hand-carved wooden masks resembling Krampus and stalk through the streets in parade dancing, singing, and making mischief. As with all good celebrations, there also tends to be a lot of drinking involved, as it is customary to offer Krampus schnapps.
A more modern Krampus tradition is that of the Krampuskarten, greeting cards which sprung into popularity in the 1800s. There are two types of Krampuskarten – the first, which feature Krampus looming over naughty children, and the second, which feature a more sexual and lascivious Krampus, usually trying to woo a pretty woman.
The tradition of Krampus didn’t make it over the pond until very recently, but it seems to have taken a hold on a specific audience. Whether it’s the disillusionment with how commercial the holiday has gotten or a wish to spice things up during the holidays, I think it’s safe to say that Krampus is here to stay.
You watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry, because Krampus is coming…