Krampus: The Devil of Christmas

17 Dec

Krampus is the dark companion of St. Nicholas, the traditional European winter gift-bringer who rewards good children each year on December 6. The kindly old Saint leaves the task of punishing bad children to a hell-bound counterpart known by many names across the continent — Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, Klaubauf, and Krampus. Usually seen as a classic devil with horns, cloven hooves and monstrous tongue, but can also be spotted as a sinister gentleman dressed in black, or a hairy man-beast, Krampus punishes the naughty children, swatting them with switches and rusty chains before dragging them, in baskets, to a fiery place below. Krampus himself historically comes around the night of December 5, tagging along with St. Nicholas. He visits houses all night with his saintly pal. While St. Nick is on hand to put sweets and other goodies in the shoes of good children and birch twigs in the shoes of the bad, Krampus’ particular specialty is punishing naughty children. Legend has it that throughout the Christmas season, misbehaved kids are beaten with birch branches or can disappear, stuffed into Krampus’ sack and hauled off to his lair to be tortured or eaten. Krampus is celebrated on Krampusnacht, which takes place on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day. In Austria, Northern Italy and other parts of Europe, party-goers masquerade as devils, wild-men, and witches to participate in Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). Intoxicated and bearing torches, costumed devils caper and carouse through the streets terrifying child and adult alike. Krampusnacht is increasingly being celebrated in other parts of Europe such as Finland and France, as well as in many American cities.

Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic folklore figure described as “half-goat, half-demon”, who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gift. Although Krampus appears in many variations, most share some common physical characteristics. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long, pointed tongue lolls out, and he has fangs. Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. Of more pagan origins are the ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children. The ruten may have had significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites. The birch branches are replaced with a whip in some representations. 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. Some of the older versions make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and taken away. This part of the legend refers to the times that the Moors raided the European coasts, and as far as Iceland, to abduct the local people into slavery. This quality can be found in other Companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwarte Piet. Krampus is one of the companions of Saint Nicholas in lands including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Northern Italy. The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated its pre-Christian origin. Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. The legendary beast also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns. The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. In fact, Krampus’ roots have nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, they date back to pre-Germanic paganism in the region. During the 12th century, the Catholic Church attempted to banish Krampus celebrations because of his resemblance to the devil. More eradication attempts followed in 1934 at the hands of Austria’s conservative Christian Social Party. But none of it held, and Krampus emerged as a much-feared and beloved holiday force.

The creature has become so popular in recent times that he has a comic book series, parties of his own and even a Hollywood film. In traditional parades and in such events as the Krampuslauf (English: Krampus run), young men dressed as Krampus participate; such events occur annually in most Alpine towns. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten. The Krampus figures persisted, and by the 17th century Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by pairing Krampus with St Nicholas. Countries of the former Habsburg Empire have largely borrowed the tradition of Krampus accompanying St Nicholas on 5 December from Austria. The character of Krampus has been imported and modified for various North American media, including print (i.e. Krampus: The Yule Lord, a 2012 novel by Gerald Brom), television – both live action (A Krampus Carol, a 2012 episode of The League) and animation (A Very Venture Christmas, a 2004 episode of The Venture Bros.) – video games (CarnEvil, a 1998 arcade game, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a 2014 video game), and film (Krampus, a 2015 Christmas comedy horror movie from Universal Pictures). Krampus is a key figure in the storyline of The Devil of Christmas, a 2016 episode of the British dark comedy series Inside No. 9. On the CW show Supernatural, Season 3, Episode 8, A Very Supernatural Christmas Krampus, an ancient pagan god (couple), is taking people in a small town and Sam and Dean must track them down and end their reign of terror. In Glenn Beck’s Christmas fantasy novel The Immortal Nicholas, Krampus was the name of the protagonist Agios’ friend. Krampus had unusual facial features, a large body, and health problems indicating a possible medical diagnosis of acromegaly. Nevertheless, in the ancient setting of the novel, most characters who encountered Krampus viewed him as an ugly monster, a giant, or a beast to be abused or even murdered. In the present day this mythical holiday beast is once again on the prowl, but beware, he’s making his way across the Atlantic from Europe – perhaps you’ll be the next to catch the Krampus spirit this holiday season!

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2 Responses to “Krampus: The Devil of Christmas”

  1. Hugh Paxton December 17, 2017 at 4:11 am #

    Intriguing post, as always!

  2. Von December 17, 2017 at 7:22 am #

    I enjoyed this post very interesting read.

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