Long before Billy Bob Thornton, there was a real bad santa, Krampus, the yin to St. Nick’s yang, and what a riot I had learning about this half-goat, half-demon creature that beats people into being nice. I had no idea that Krampus was anything more than an evil Santa that someone imagined and then made a movie about.
Turns out our friend, Krampus, has been around for centuries. While St. Nick is leaving sweets for the good children, Krampus is punishing the naughty ones by beating them with a birch branch or stuffing them into his sack and taking them to his lair where they will be tortured or eaten or possibly transported to hell.
This antique greeting card depicts one version of what Krampus looks like. He has a basket to take bad children away with him. The German text reads: “Greetings from Krampus!” PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
In fact, Krampus’ roots have nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, they date back to pre-Germanic paganism in the region. His name originates with the German krampen, which means “claw,” and tradition has it that he is the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel.
The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. He is also known to accompany St Nicholas in other countries, including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, South Tyrol and parts of Northern Italy.
There are variations as to how Krampus looks, however, he generally has dark hair, fangs and the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. The anti-St. Nicholas comes with a chain and bells that he lashes about, along with a bundle of birch branches meant to swat naughty children. Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a basket strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to hell.
According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 also happens to be Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (bad behavior).
Krampus celebrations were suppressed for years by the Catholic Church, which forbade them, but he has made a comeback in Europe, and to a certain extent, in the United States. In addition to an appearance in local family homes, usually along with St. Nicholas, Krampus and his cohorts also gather to put on a wild show in the streets of many Austrian and Bavarian towns. The “show” is known as a Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Customs vary by locality, but the tradition goes back hundreds of years, and far, far beyond a mere lump of coal in a kid’s stocking.
In the early evening winter darkness of November and December, in towns and cities across Austria and southern Germany, you can see young children, teenagers, and adults being intimidated and scared out of their wits by people dressed as demonic, horned, goat-like, masked creatures running around with torches and instruments of torture that include twig switches and whips. In most cases, the Krampusse are running rampant, without any “good guys” around. In Austria and elsewhere, these ugly masked Krampus figures actually lash out at people, young and old, sometimes inflicting physical injury (scratches, bruises) and always imparting a degree of mental anguish.
Some Americans have even turned to European Alpine folklore and customs and Krampusfests occur in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Tampa, Florida. They are more family friendly and fairly tame compared to the events in Europe. In fact, I understand that one city’s Krampus event site notes: “Do not scare anyone who does not want to be scared!” That’s definitely not how it works in Austria.
If you are interested in learning more or locating a Krampusfest in your neighborhood, there are websites and Facebook pages galore to help you out. You can even buy a Krampus in the Corner instead of the Elf on a Shelf and join in the heated debate about which one is creepier.
Merry Christmas! I hope your Holidays are wonderful and completely Krampus free.