Surely Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Life looks a little bit better with snow, lights and songs all over the decorated streets. And of course there’s Santa Claus (also known as Saint Nicholas) bringing joy and presents to all the good girls and boys. But there’s some parts of Europe, like Germany, Austria, and other parts of the Alps region, where naughty children needs to be very careful during the holidays because of a dark, mischievous and grumpy figure hidden in the shadows. This evil spirit is the Krampus, Saint Nicholas counterpart.
This creature is an anthropomorphic beast with fangs, fur, and horns. Dark and ancient spirit, Krampus announces his presence with loud bells and terrorizes the kids who have misbehaved during the year. In contrast with Santa giving the good ones gifts and joy, Krampus gives the bad ones whip beatings and nightmares. And if you have been particularly naughty, Krampus will drop you in a sack and whisk you away to his lair in the underworld and you’ll never be seen again. A fairy tale gone horribly wrong…
How did this creature come to be a part of the Christmas tradition? Scholars estimate that Krampus started appearing between the 11th century and the 13th century. The legend has probably started High up in the Alp countries, connecting this monster with witches and demons. The word “Krampus” is derived from the Old High German word krampen, meaning “claw”. According to Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, the goddess ruler of the underworld. There are also a few physical similarities between Krampus and Greek mythical creatures – like the horns and hoofs of satyrs and fauns. So it looks like Krampus has something to do with ancient myths and legends from all over the world.
The creature spread to other European countries such as Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary, with slightly variations in looks, names and practiced customs. In Tyrol (a state in western Austria), Krampus tends to look like a giant and sadistic, teddy bear. In western Germany, he actually arrives with Santa, sitting shotgun in his sleigh. In Styria (southeast Austria), the birch sticks used for his whip are painted gold and displayed year around, to remind kids of Krampus’s impending arrival. After entering in the Christmas tradition, Krampus was given chains showing him as an embodiment of the devil being bound by the Church.
Then, after being connected and altered in order to give him a more religious meaning, Krampus was attached to St. Nick, a Christian saint and the owner of his very own feast day on December 6th. St. Nick, himself, wouldn’t be closely associated with Christmas until early 19th century with the name Santa Claus deriving from the Dutch language. In many parts of Germany and Austria, St. Nick is still separate from Christmas and celebrated on December 6th.
The connection has its logic because Krampus was awarded his own night called Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) on December 5th, the day before St. Nick’s feast. During this night, Krampus wanders around making loud noises and scaring bad kids while good kids put a boot outside, hoping St. Nick to drop fruit and nuts into it). This night is still celebrated in the Alps region with run of celebrants dressed as the wicked beast and it is customary to offer Krampus a drink of warm schnapps, a "strong alcoholic drink resembling gin and often flavored with fruit".
Despite these connections to Christianity, Krampus is still a pagan origin and some traditions have survived and are still part of today’s creature. He continues to carry bells, which were customarily used to ward off spirits. As mentioned, the animal-like appearance of most Krampus’ also date to pagan times and hasn’t been changed at all.
Krampus hasn’t been an accepted European tradition during the war neither. In 1934, four years before the Third Reich overran Germany and Austria, The New York Times published an article called: “Krampus Disliked in Fascist Austria, declaring the Krampus strictly forbidden. Same old political issues.
More recently, Krampus has become very popular all over the world. And if have never heard of him before...well, now you know. So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Beware the Krampus…