In ancient times, a dark, hairy, horned beast was said to show up at the door to kidnap children. The Krampus could be heard in the night by the sound of his echoing cloven hooves and his rattling iron chains. All interesting….but the strangest part is that he is, like Santa Claus, part of Christmas!
However, this beast was no a demon. He was the mythical Krampus, companion to Saint Nicholas (known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, etc.). While Saint Nicholas has the reputation of loving all children and visiting them at Christmastime and giving gifts, Krampus is his dangerous sidekick.
It is believed that the long-horned monster, similar at a goat with a long angry face and forked tongue would visit the home of bad children to punish them.
According to the legends, if a child misbehaved, Saint Nicholas, in his omniscience, would know and send his associate, Krampus which, with a serpentine tail would turn up to the house during the Christmas season to punish the wicked child.
Bad children? If being good for Santa wasn’t enough, Krampus’ story and fearsome appearance terrified children into behaving!
So, in the 17th century Krampus was tied into Christian celebrations, and paired with St. Nicholas. According to the legends, he joined St. Nicholas on his treks the night before St. Nicholas’ feast. While St. Nicholas would reward the good with gifts and treats, Krampus would punish the bad. In some cases he would leave coal, but darker stories tell of ill-behaved children being stuffed into his sack to be carried away to hell for a year.
Historians are unsure as to the exact origins of the Krampus figure in folklore, but it is believed that like Santa, Krampus predates Christianity, and came from Norse and Alpine traditions and Germanic paganism. Like many legendary characters, including St. Nicholas himself, Krampus’ image has evolved over time and throughout regions, but always represented a balance of light and dark, providing a harmony between good and evil.
The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. Krampus is the counterpart of St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, would swat bad children, stuff them in a sack, and take them away to his lair for a year.
On Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, the eve of December 5, German children took care to not attract the attention of the beast, in hopes that St. Nicholas would bring presents on Nikolaustag, December 6.
According to one of the lot legends, Krampus is the son of Hel in Norse mythology (Hel is daughter of Loki and overseer of the land of the dead). His name is derived from the old Bavarian word “krampn”, which means “dead”, “putrefied”, or from the German word “krampen”, meaning “claw”, and the legendary beast also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
The myth of Krampus is usual in the Alpine regions, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, and the legend is now know across Europe and around the world.
Families traditionally exchanged colorful greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, since the 1800s featuring the sometimes silly, sometimes sinister Krampus.
In the early 20 th century Krampus was prohibited by the Austrian Fascist government, but the tradition was revived with the fall of the government after World War II.
There are traditional annual parades still today, where drunken men dressed as Krampus take over the streets for a Krampuslauf—a Krampus Run of sorts, when people are chased through the streets by the “devils.”.
Many cities and towns, in keeping with old tradition, run a popular Krampuslauf, a sizeable gathering of revelers, largely fortified by alcoholic schnapps, dressed in Krampus costume to chase people through the streets.
Every year, more than 1200 Austrians gather in Schladming, Styria, to dress up as Krampus, swatting passers-by with sticks and loudly ringing cowbells. Birch sticks are painted gold and displayed to remind of his arrival.
These days on Krampusnacht, Krampus will commonly accompany St. Nicholas to homes and businesses where St. Nicholas will give out gifts, and Krampus will hand out coal and birch stick bundles!
The legend of Krampus is gaining in popularity, even if there are people who believe the devil-like Krampus figure is inappropriate for children, or he is believed to have been altered to suit modern anti-Christmas sentiments.
However Krampus, while appearing like a demon, is not the anti-Santa.
Since ancient times he has worked alongside Santa to ensure that people had respect, behaved, and were good to each other….even though in an unorthodox way, and Krampus is a scary beast for sure. You better be nice….