The Origin of Krampus

Often described as a half-goat, half-demon in Central European folklore, he is an anthropomorphic being set to envoke fear and punish children who have misbehaved. Unlike Santa Claus, who rewards children for their wonderful attitudes, Krampus is…not so jolly, often being associated with negative punishment.

Characteristics and Features

Krampus is known to resemble a demonic figure with brown or black hair covering his body, along with goat-like horns and hooves (sometimes shown with one human foot and one hoof). His tongue is quite unnerving as it’s elongated and accompanied by fangs in most visual depictions. He carries chains, believed to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church and thrashes them around for a dramatized effect and is also known to have a bell. The Ruten (Pagan) that he uses to commonly swat children is a bundle of birch branches but in some instances, he uses a whip.

Sometimes with him is a sack or basket to carry away bad and misbehaved children where he either drowns them, eats them, or drags them to Hell. Older versions of this are portrayed with the other Companions of Saint Nicolas (pictured below as the other companions closely related with Saint Nicolas who travel alongside him), like Zwarte Piet for example.

Origins and Celebrations

Krampus Christmas Card Example

The legend and story of Krampus has been theorized to date back to pre-Christian times. An article by Maurice Bruce in 1958 talks about him as being “a Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rituals.” He was originally (supposedly) created by Pagans and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology.
Even though Santa is the polar opposite, he was later on thought of as a companion of sorts to Krampus due to Christianity since the 1700s, similar to the yin-yang concept but Christmasy of course.
Since the 18th century, Europeans have been passing around and exchanging gift cards featuring Krampus with the headline “Gruß vom Krampus” or Greetings from Krampus along with funny rhymes and/or poems. It used to resemble something unnerving but in recent years, has had somewhat of a cutesy look to the cards.

The Feast of St. Nicolas is incorporated in many parts of Europe on the 6th of December, following the night of December 5th where the night belongs to Krampus (Krampusnacht) as he overtakes the streets and often visits homes and businesses alongside St. Nicolas. Santa distributes gifts for the good and Krampus hands out coal and lumps of Ruten for the bad boys and girls.

An artist’s depiction of Santa and Krampus visiting a young child

After the 1932 election in Austria, the tradition of Krampus was no longer deemed allowed by the Dollfuss regime under the Fatherland’s Front (an Austrian political organization of “Austrofascism”). Then in the 1950s, the government titled Krampus as an evil man in pamphlets but towards the end of the 1900s, a large and popular resurface of Krampus celebrations occurred as they still do today with some recent reports (this year, in fact!) of some drunken Austrians roaming the streets in Krampus masks while others hang decor and gold-painted bundles of twigs to remind children to never forget the meaning of Krampus and to always behave. The celebration is being rekindled in Bavaria also with an artistic tradition of wood-carven Krampus masks and is becoming a crucial part of the holiday season.

It is also customary (according to Germanic folklore) to offer a Krampus schnapps or distilled fruit brandy during a Krampus run (Krampuslauf) which can be rather frightening as those dressed up to don the figure may scare and even beat, push, hit bystanders with whips.

Krampus in Modern Media

In recent, modern years there have been many different media depictions of the infamous anti-Santa. Books include Krampus: The Yule Lord by Gerald Brom and Krampus: The Devil of Christmas by Monte Beauchamp. Movies include Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013), Krampus (2015), and Krampus: The Reckoning (2015). Krampus has also been known in modern animations, television shows, and video games. Yup, Krampus is quite a famous character and likely will be for years to come as tales and stories continue to be passed down through the ongoing generations.

What are your thoughts on Krampus and the legends and stories that revolve around him? Let me know in the comments!

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