Christmas is almost upon us, and for many it is a time to get together with family and friends and keep traditions alive. But what exactly are these “traditions”? Of course, each place and culture has its own ways of celebrating this particular date. Christmas, in short, marks the the symbolic (not actual) date of the birth of Jesus Christ, nevertheless, it’s such a popular event all over the world, that different cultures have created different ways to enjoy it. Even countries who don’t follow the Christian faith can and do join in the merrymaking, with unique traditions of their own, like Japan, where the Christmas feast is not complete without…KFC chicken!
In most Christian-majority countries, there isn’t an awful lot of variety in how Christmas is celebrated. We all have a tree, presents, the jolly man with the white beard and red clothes who brings the presents…Christmas is a rather globalized, homogenous holiday, and that’s in large part due to its commercialization and to how the entertainment industry created a very specific image for it. After all, we all know the story about how Santa wears red because of Coca-cola’s marketing (which is not exactly true, but that’s another story) and we all have watched at least one adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. As a matter of fact, that particular book just happens to be the source of many Christmas traditions we still follow to this day. That’s because, well before families gathered to watch “Home Alone” or “The Grinch”, they would gather on the Holidays to read an tell stories, particularly ghost stories. In the Victorian Era, such stories were published in periodicals, and such publications were the first type of “Christmas-themed” form of mass entertainment available. “A Christmas Carol” just happened to be the most successful example of this genre (To know more about Victorian Christmas stories, check out my article “Christmas Ghosts: a Victorian tradition”)
Of course, Christmas wasn’t always so homogenous, and even with the endless torrent of movies, toys, tv shows, Netflix specials and other cultural products that present a carefully crafted and specific image of Christmas, different and unique traditions can still be found everywhere. In fact, Christmas itself is a mix of different cultures. Even though it’s ostesibly a “Christian” holiday, it contains many pagan elements, which have been assimilated as Christianism expanded between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. A lot of these pre-Christian elements are now considered an intrinsic part of the festivities all over the world, like the Christmas tree (a possible heritage from germanic tribes), the gift-giving and Holly and mistletoe decorations (both hungover from the Saturnalia, a Roman festival to Saturn, celebrated in December). But there are other ancient traditions that didn’t quite go so mainstream. The Krampus is one of them.
St. Nicholas’ evil buddy
The Krampus is a creature from central european folklore. He is one of the main “companions of St. Nicholas” that appear in the Christmas lore of Germany, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Tzech Republic and even parts of France and Italy. So, before talking about the Krampus, we have got to talk about good ole St. Nick.
The portly bearer of gidts with a snowy white beard is present in many countries under different names: Santa Klaus in the USA, Father Christmas in the UK, Santy in Ireland, Papai Noel in Brazil, Père Noel in France, and so on. All these variations of the same character come from a single inspiration, St. Nicholas. Overtime, he went through many transformations that removed a lot of his religious aspects, replacing them with more secular characteristics, which made him the perfect poster boy for Holiday business. But in many parts of Europe, the task of bringing children their presents was traditionally a job for the original Saint Nicholas himself.
Nicholas of Myra was born in the 3rd century in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and served as a bishop in the city of Myra. Nicholas had the reputation of being an extremely generous and kind man. One of the most famous stories told about him was that he had once saved three innocent men from execution. Another popular story details how Nicholas would secretly help poor families by going out in the middle of the night and leaving gold coins on their windowsills or inside their shoes, which were left outside the door. Sounds familiar? This story led to the belief that St. Nicholas brought gifts to the needy, and since his feast is held on the 6th day of December, it’s easy to see how this saintly man was integrated into the Holidays and slowly morphed into our Santa Claus, who rewards good children with gifts.
And how about the naughty children? Well, to deal with them there were St Nicholas “companions”.
These companions were a group of scary-looking figures, whose appearance and modus operandi varied from place to place, but their job was the same everywhere: doing St. Nicholas “dirty work” for him. That is, while kindly St. Nicholas went around distributing gifts and joy to the good children, his companions would punish the naughty ones. What exactly these punishments were, again, varied from place to place, but they could range from “lighter” punishments like spankings or even whippings, to far more gruesome ones such as being boiled alive in a cauldron or just flat out dragged to hell. Yes, in a way it was almost as if St. Nicholas, when not busy being jolly, moonlighted as sort of Holiday-themed mafia-boss with a bunch of violent henchmen to do his bidding.
The Krampus is by far the most famous of these creepy companions.
The Krampus, whose name comes from the germanic word kranpen, meaning ‘claw’, is always pictured in the same way: a sinister humanoid creature, with goat horns and feet, a long bright red tongue dangling out of his mouth, all covered in black or brown fur and carrying a bundle of sticks or a whip in one hand, chains in the other and a large bag slung over his shoulder. The overall look reads much more “demonic” than Christmasy, and that’s exactly the point. According to Stephem Nissembaum, professor of history with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of “The Battle for Christmas” , Christmas was, theologically speaking,a kiddie version of Judgement Day, that is, it was the day in which children were judged on their behaviour over the course of the year, much like, as per Christian tradition, the souls of the dead would be judged for the sins they had commited over the course of their lives. That would explain the need for duality: St. Nicholas, who rewards good children, represented God rewarding the righteous with salvation, and the Krampus, who punished the naught y children, represented the Devil taking the sinners to hell.
However, the Krampus has more ancient origins, going back all the way before the expansion of Christianism in Europe.
Perchtenlauf: the birth of the Krampus?
The German and Austrian Alps have a very rich pre-Christian folklore comprised of of Gallic, German, Slavic and Raetian elements. One of the deities of Alpine paganism was the goddess Perchta (“the bright one”). She was the guardian of animals and could take on two distinct forms: one young and beautiful and another old and wild looking. Perchta had a retinue of magical creatures knows as Perchten, female figures who wore masks made of wood and lamb skin. It was believed that the Perchten were a representation os the souls of the dead who wandered free when winter came. This belief led to the creation of the Perchtenlauf, processions in which participants wore costumes that evoked the Perchten. These costumes came in a few variations: the Percht, or male versions of the Perchten, the Schönperchten, or “fair” Perchten who brought good luck and the Schiachperchten or “ugly” Perchten, who scared evil spirits away
Even with the expansion and establishment of Christianism, these processions continued to take place, and, as we can imagine, the church was none too happy about it. Many authorities and officials tried to put an end to the Perchtenlauf, but since the Alps are a rather hostile terrain and the population was quite scattered and often times isolated, enforcing the law was virtualiy impossible. While the Perchenlauf continued, another newer tradition was beginning to grow in popularity, the Nikolausspiel, or “St.Nicholas plays”. These were moralizing plays that were staged early in December, around the time of St. Nicholas feast, depicting him as a stand-in for all that was good, rewarding children for good behaviour and saving the souls of sinners. As these plays bec ame more and more widespread, the Perchenlauf also started to incorporate the image of St.Nicholas.
There are other pagan elements in the origins of the Krampus as well. According to Maurice Bruce, in his 1958 article “The Krampus in Styria”, the Krampus’ horns come straight from the Horned God, a deity which could be found in several pagan traditions, and is still very much a part of modern Wicca. The author also adds that he birch sticks the Krampus sometimes carries could also be a part of ancient initiation rituals. In the 1975 article, “The Masked Face”, anthropologist John J. Honigmann argues that several elements of ancient pagan traditions were assimilated by the church into the image of the Devil, which would have originated the Krampus and his association with St. Nicholas.
Krampusnacht, Krampuslauf, Krampuskarten: the Krampus goes mainstream.
Gradually, the connection between the Krampus, descending of the perchts and perchten of pagan folklore, and St. Nicholas became so strong that it originated a festival called Krampusnacth, or Krampus’ Night. The main feature of this particular night, the eve of St. Nicholas’ day, is the Krampuslauf, a sort of parade in which participants dress up in elaborate Krampus’ costumes and roam the streets to “terrorize” young and old. The Krampuslauf doesn’t have the religious tone of the ancient Perchtenlauf, which may explain its enduring popularity. The event is held in many cities and towns in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy and attracts large crowds of people, particularly families with kids. After all, what better way to keep the Christmas spirit alive than reminding the little ones their naughty ways may lead to some terrifying consequences?
The truth is the Krampus has always been popular. Over the centuries, many parents have invoked his name to scare their kids into behaving better. In a way the Krampus is a sort of boogeyman, and that alone would be enough to make him rather popular. We all enjoy a good scare and what’s scarier than a Christmas demon who whips children into submission (or worse)? It’s just a classic “scare ‘ em straight” story” any of us could have heard from a more old-school parent or grandparent at some point. But the Krampus is not only about the scares, he has a fun side to him as well.
In the 19th century, Krampuskarten, or Krampus themed cards, were all the rage. They were holiday cards that featured the Krampus shown in funny situations. Of course what was “funny” to 19th century people, may not necessarily be funny for us, so while we may find lots of these cards to be hilarious, some other ones…well, not so much. A very popular theme was, obviously, the Krampus punishing naughty children, which is certainly easier to appreaciate as comedy if your sense of humor s mor eon the morbid side.
Other cards were a bit more, how shall we put it, “grown up”. These usually showed the Krampus flirting with or pursuing attractive women. This type of card touch upon a different and quite interesting part of the Krampus’ demonic associations. Many celebrations have a quality of disturbing or uprooting the “natural” order and dominant sense of morality. Lets look at Mardi Gras for example: three days during which the rules of everyday life get turned upside down and social hierarquies disappear, so people can engage in behaviours they normaly wouldn’t for fear of judgement. Then, everything just goes back to business as usual.
This suspension of the “normal” works as a type of catharsis, an outlet for the build-up frustration of everyday life. Some festive dates allow for this revoking of rules precisely as a way to reinforce hierarchies. That is, when you allow people to forgo the rules for a specific window of time, this allows social tensions to “relax” a little, and once you’ve done that everything can go back to “normal” and the usual power dynamics are restored.
Christmas is probably one of the most formal, most highly ritualized celebrations of the Christian calendar. It is, after all, the birth of the son of God. The Krampus (and the other St. Nicholas campanions), in a way, serves as an outlet that makes this holiday a little less stuffy and pompous. So, one the one hand he’s the one who punishes c hilren for not conforming to expectations of proper behaviour, on the other he’s also a demon who runs around scarying people during the Krampuslauf or seducing women in the Krampuskarten. In the nice and tidy tableau of Christmas, the Krampus is an element of chaos.
That may explain the recent spike in popularity of the Krampus among those who want to celebrate the Holidays in less ortodox ways or those who are interested in exploring the pagan aspects of it. Which is why we can see the Krampus show up more and more in pop culture. Some cities in the USA have their very own Krampusnachts, as is the case with Washington DC and the ever-spooky New Orleans. The Krampus has also been featured on a number of movies and shows, such as Krampus (2015), Supernatural and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. We can also find him in comic books and graphic novels, like Krampus: The Yule Lord by Gerald Brom and Klaus by Grant Morrisson. In many tourist towns in Austria and Germany, the Krampus’ likeness appears in souvenirs, chocolate boxes and toys.
Ironically, the Krampus’s growing popularity has led many to worry that the Krampus just might have the same fate as St. Nicholas, that is, being turned into a posterboy for the commercialization of Christmas. At least for now, though, the Krampus is still firmly holding on to his status as the Christmas’ agente of chaos.
Al Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House (2016)
Christian Roy. Traditional Festivals, A multicultural Encyclopedia ABC-CLIO (2005)
Monte Beauchamp, . The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics. (2016)
Victoria Williams, Victoria. Celebrating Life Customs around the World: From Baby Showers to Funerals [3 volumes]. ABC-CLIO (2016)
John J. Honigmann, “The Masked Face”. Ethos. 5 (3): 263.(1977)
Maurice Bruce: “The Krampus in Styria”. Folklore. 69: 45.(1958)
Miguel Roncero, “Trailing the Krampus”, Vienna Review, 2 December 2013