Beware the Christmas Krampus!

Santa isn’t the only one keeping track of who is naughty or nice. In some Alpine regions of Europe (mainly Austria, Germany & Switzerland), people still carry on celebrations involving one of St. Nick’s lesser known companions, the Krampus.
The name Krampus comes from the Old High German word for claw, apparently referring to just one of this being’s scary attributes. Other less-than-friendly features include a long, long tongue, shaggy black hair/fur, goat’s head with horns, and cloven feet. Krampus was usually equipped with a bundle of birch twigs (for beating naughty children), chains (for capturing naughty children) and a pack basket on his back (for abducting naughty children).

According to Mannfred Kapper of the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Krampus was initially a side note to the St. Nicholas story, a goat-faced eminence noir who accompanied St. Nick on his December gift-giving tours. ‘Nicholas and Krampus would come to the houses together,’ Kapper said. ‘Nicholas gave the children presents and Krampus beat them.’ But in the last 200 years, Krampus has slowly developed an identity of his own. ‘Today Krampus is more popular in the countryside, but if you come to the city it is more St. Nicholas,’ he said.
Depending on who you believe, Krampus is very old indeed. Some say the tradition stems back to the pre-Christian era, and that the Krampus known and feared by Austrians today is a version of an ancient god incorporated into Christian holidays.

The modern tradition goes something like this: On Dec. 5, the day before St. Nicholas arrives with his sack of gifts, local men dress up in goat and sheep skins, wearing elaborate hand-carved masks. They make the rounds of village houses with children. When the kids open the door, they’re frightened by Krampus-clad men waving switches at them and ringing loud cowbells. In some towns, kids are made to run a Krampus-gauntlet, dodging swats from tree branches.
The ceremony was widely practiced until the Inquisition, when impersonating a devil was punishable by death. In remote mountain towns the tradition survived in violation of the church’s edicts. In the 17th century Krampus made a comeback as part of the Christmas celebrations, paired with St. Nicholas as the jolly fellow’s dark alter ego.
In the mid-1950s, well-meaning educators feared that the frightening apparition might scar children for life.
One anti-Krampus pamphlet distributed in Vienna was earnestly entitled “Krampus is an Evil Man.” As with most old traditions, Krampus has been somewhat commercialized and toned down. Today the tradition often devolves into a mid-winter bacchanal, where scaring kids takes a back seat to heroic bouts of drinking. The town of Schladminger is home to a sort of Krampus convention, with more than a thousand goat-men roaming the town’s streets, harassing the town’s young women.
The Krampus in Print

The Krampus tradition enjoyed a relatively recent surge in ‘popularity’ right before WW1, thanks to the new-fangled color picture-postcard industry of that time.
There are a few books available (and many online sources) detailing these rather disturbing images. They run the gamut from scenes of children being menaced, beaten and abducted to scenes of older girls and women being sexually harassed (some even feature a voyeur Santa, peeking through the window at the Krampus & victim).
We hope you enjoyed this creepy look into a traditional European belief. I’d much rather find a lump of coal in my stocking than have a visit from the Krampus!

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3 thoughts on “Beware the Christmas Krampus!”

  1. Krampus is so similar to Kekri in Finland although the timing is slightly different. Maybe it got moved when incorporating St. Nicholas into the existing tradition? Interesting anyway!

  2. From what I’ve read, Santa used to pal around with a lot of shady characters. Kind of ironic that when he made the jump to America, he left the scarier traditions behind.

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