Krampus, Son of Hel: The Ancient Origins of the Christmas Devil
It is well known in America that Santa Claus maintains a Naughty and Nice list for when he comes to town. Good kids get presents; bad kids get coal. This makes for a great Christmas carol but it is not really an effective means to encourage good behavior. In Europe, however, children are frightened into being nice by Krampus, the Christmas Devil. Originally an ancient pagan tradition, Krampus was being coopted into the story of Saint Nicholas. Since then, he has been rallied against by medieval clergymen and repressed by nationalists only to be revived in an era of mass consumerism. Today, practitioners are worried about how the massive influx of refugees will respond to the terrifying Christmas Devil.
Krampus, The Son of Goddess Hel
The Krampus tradition is popular in countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. The name derives from the German word krampen, meaning claw. He has a “mangled, deranged face with bloodshot eyes atop a furry black body. Giant horns curl up from his head, displaying his half-goat, half-demon lineage.” (Billock, 2015) According to legend, Krampus is the son of the Norse goddess Hel, ruler of Helheim (the Norse realm of the dead). Youngest daughter of Loki, Hel is described as “a horrible hag, half alive and half dead, with a gloomy and grim expression. Her face and body are those of a living woman, but her thighs and legs are those of a corpse, mottled and moldering.” (Lindemans, 1997) Krampus is a counterpart to other Christmas Devils such as France’s Hans Trapp and the Netherlands’ Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
Krampus is said to be the son of goddess Hel (pictured). ( public domain )
The pagan tradition involves people, mostly young men, dressing up to scare away winter’s ghosts, usually fearful mountain spirits that liked to come down and wreak havoc. Wearing fur suits and carved masks, they paraded through the villages yelling, ringing bells, and generally making a racket. The custom was oftentimes carried out on the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. Along with other pagan traditions, Krampus became entwined with Christmas as Christianity spread through Eastern Europe.
Krampus Devours Naughty Children
About 1,500 years ago, Krampus became the counterpart of Saint Nicholas. On the night of December 5/6, Saint Nicholas walks about, leaving little presents in the shoes and boots of children who have been well behaved. Following close behind is Krampus, who leaves a rod in the shoes of the naughty children. Krampus carries a bundle of birch sticks with which he strikes especially bad kids. The worst offenders he stuffs into a bag and drags them off to his lair where they will presumably be eaten. “Together, the Krampus-like figures and the bishop St. Nicholas…held a kind of judgment day for children” (Little, 2015).
According to tradition, Krampus devours naughty children ( Public Domain )
Krampus is Not So Easy to Banish!
By the 12 th century, the Catholic Church began its work to stamp out this pagan devil. Christians were fairly successfully at banishing the Krampus until he reemerged in a 19 th-century fit of consumerism. “Manufacturers started to commercialize Krampus after 1890, when the Austrian government relinquished control over the nation’s postcard production, causing the industry to flourish” (Little, 2015). There were scary Krampuses for children and silly Krampuses for adults. This coincided with a revival of Krampus festivals. Although ostensibly supposed to scare children into good behavior, the night allowed adults (mostly men) to dress up in scary customs and run around the town (usually drunk). It is the Krampuslauf (‘Krampus Run’) aspect of the Krampusnacht (‘Krampus Night’) that is most popular today. But the early 20 th-century Krampuslauf was outlawed by the conservative/nationalist parties of Germany and Austria in the 1930s.
The Rise of the Christmas Devil
Today, Krampus is making a comeback in Europe and is gaining popularity in American “thanks partly to a ‘bah, humbug’ attitude in pop culture, with people searching for ways to celebrate the yuletide season in non-traditional ways” (Basu, 2013). Krampus’ rise in America has mirrored a rise in the number of people who bemoan that the tradition has become too commercialized. They are especially distraught about the 2015 comedy/horror film centered on the Christmas Devil.
“The Krampus is the yin to St. Nick's yang,” said Jeremy Seghers, organizer of a Krampus festival in Orlando, Florida. “You have the saint, you have the devil. It taps into a subconscious macabre desire that a lot of people have that is the opposite of the saccharine Christmas a lot of us grew up with.” (Little, 2015)
Attempts to Stop Krampus Scaring Refugees
More worrying than Hollywood attempts to capitalize on the tradition, a new wrinkle in the Krampus story has recently arisen concerning the influx of Syrian refugees. “Though the festival is well-loved, it gave rise to concerns that the new neighbors might be scared of the tradition and its nightmare-fueling costumes” (Billock, 2015). Some called for the annual Krampus festival to be canceled. One city in Austria instead chose to introduce the newcomers to their tradition by inviting children to a display of Krampus costumes and props before the big night.
“I think it's wonderful that they want to get the refugees used to this sort of thing,” said Seghers. “You can’t force people to adopt cultural traditions of which they have no basis or point of reference.” (Little 2015).
Speaking with a Telegraph reporter covering the story, two local participants offered similar views: “For people who have never seen it, it can be somewhat intimidating,” said Bettina Huber, a local volunteer working on the project. (Sabur, 2015). “They had no idea about this [tradition], and were totally surprised. It's good that they see what happens,” said Paulo Keliny, an Arab translator from Egypt (Sabur, 2015).
Top image: Krampus, the Christmas Devil ( CC by SA 2.0 )
Basu, Tanya. "Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil." National Geographic . National Geographic Society, 19 Dec. 2013. Web. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/.
Billock, Jennifer. "The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 04 Dec. 2015. Web. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/krampus-could-come-you-holiday-season-180957438/.
Lindemans, Micha F. "Hel." Encyclopedia Mythica . Encyclopedia Mythica, 03 Mar. 1997. Web. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hel.html.
Little, Becky. "How Krampus, the Christmas 'Devil,' Became Cool." National Geographic . National Geographic Society, 4 Dec. 2015. Web. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151204-krampus-movie-christmas-demon-santa-holiday-folklore/.
Sabur, Rozina. "Austrian Town Reassures Asylum-seekers over Unusual Christmas Tradition." The Telegraph . Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/austria/12024686/Austrian-town-reassures-asylum-seekers-over-unusual-Christmas-tradition.html.