Krampus visiting children on Krampusnacht with St. Nicholas.
They say he comes on the evening of December 5th, a night they call “Krampusnacht,” armed with a bundle of gold-painted birch sticks to beat naughty children with. You can usually hear him coming: the soft steps of one bare human foot alternate with the clip-clop of his cloven hoof. His name is Krampus, and he’s the terror of Austria and the Alpine region.
The Legend Of Krampus, Saint Nick’s Evil Counterpart
Though legends about his looks change from region to region, some things stay consistent: Krampus is said to have pointed devilish horns and a long snake-like tongue. His body is covered in coarse fur, and he looks like a goat crossed with a demon.
His body and arms are strung with chains and bells, and he carries a large sack, or occasionally a basket, on his back to cart off evil children.
Krampus cards are exchanged during the early days of December.
Krampus comes to town the night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas and makes the rounds of all the houses to mete out punishment to the naughty.
If you’re lucky, you might get a swat with a birch branch; if you’re not, you’ll wind up in the basket. After that, your fate is anyone’s guess. The legends suggest you might be eaten as a snack, drowned in a river, or dropped off in Hell.
Sometimes he’s accompanied by Saint Nicholas, who in Central Europe doesn’t bother himself with the naughty children. He focuses on handing out presents to the well behaved and leaves the rest for his dark counterpart.
Krampus carries children off into the night on a bundle of birch sticks.
How did this sinister figure become a regular part of holiday fun in places like Austria, Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Northern Italy? Nobody is entirely certain.
Most believe Krampus hails from the Alpine region’s pagan past. His name comes from the German word krampen, which means “claw,” and he bears a striking resemblance to old Norse legends about the son of Hel, god of the underworld.
It’s a compelling history, especially since Krampus’s appearance coincides with a number of pagan winter rites, notably one that sends people parading through the streets to disperse the ghosts of winter.
Over the years, as Christianity gained popularity in the region, aspects of Krampus’s appearance began to shift to fall in line with Christian beliefs.
The chains, for example, were not originally a feature of Hel’s ghoulish son. It’s believed that Christians added them later to evoke the binding of the Devil. And that wasn’t the only change — under Christian hands, Krampus took on a number of devilish qualities, like the basket in which he carries wicked children to Hell.
From there, it isn’t hard to see how Krampus, already associated with the winter festivities, might then have been incorporated into Christian Christmas traditions and the legend of Saint Nicholas.
The Modern Krampus And Krampusnacht Celebrations
Krampus and St. Nicholas
Today, Krampus has his own celebration on the day before the Feast of Saint Nicholas. In the Alpine region, every evening on December 5, known as “Krampusnacht,” elegantly dressed Saint Nicks pair up with monstrously outfitted Krampuses and make the rounds of homes and businesses, offering gifts and playful threats.
Krampusnacht greeting cards that depict the horned beast are exchanged with festive and funny messages.
But the best part is the citywide celebrations where people dress up as Krampus and run through the city. The activity is especially popular among young men, who chase friends and passersby through the streets with birch sticks.
Tourists say running into a coffee shop won’t save you, and the swats aren’t what you’d call gentle — but slaps are generally confined to the legs, and the festive atmosphere goes a long way toward healing the occasional welt.
The tradition has become an important one in many countries and has come to include expensive handmade masks, elaborate costumes, and even parades. Though some complain that the celebration is becoming too commercial, many aspects of the festival of old endure.
Krampus masks, for example, are typically carved from wood and are the product of significant labor. Artisans work for months, and the costumes sometimes make it into museums as examples of a living tradition of folk art.
When Krampusnacht Was Cancelled
A hand-carved Krampus mask from Austria.
It’s always remarkable when ancient traditions make it to the present — but Krampus has had an especially rough fight for survival.
In Austria in 1923, Krampus and all Krampusnacht activities were banned by the Fascist Christian Social Party. Their motives were a little unclear: though they agreed that Krampus was certainly a force for evil, there seems to have been some confusion about whether that was because of his clear ties to the Christian Devil or his less-clear ties to the Social Democrats.
Either way, they were sure that Krampus wasn’t good for kids, and they passed out pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man,” warning parents of the dangers of influencing young children with threats of a violent holiday intruder.
Though they might have had a point about the traumatic effect of telling misbehaving children they were going to be eaten by Saint Nick’s evil twin, society wasn’t deeply moved. The ban lasted for four years, and vague murmurs of disapproval continued a little longer. But in the end, they couldn’t keep Krampus down.
By the end of the 20th century, Krampus was back in full force — and in recent years, he’s made the leap across the pond to the United States. He’s had cameos on Grimm, Supernatural, and even The Colbert Report.
Some cities, like Los Angeles, have annual Krampus celebrations that feature costume contests, parades, traditional dances, bell-ringing, and Alpine horn blowing. Cookies, dirndls, and masks are de rigueur.
So if you’re the sort who thinks Christmas needs more Halloween, see if your city has a Krampusnacht celebration — and don’t forget to dress up.