Santa’s Horned Helper: The Fearsome Legend of Krampus, Christmas Punisher
In ancient times, a dark, hairy, horned beast was said to show up at the door to beat children, and carry them off in his sharp claws. The Krampus could be heard in the night by the sound of his echoing cloven hooves and his rattling iron chains. The strangest part was that he was in league with Santa Claus.
The Christmas Terror
The unnerving beast was no demon, however. He was the mythical Krampus, companion to Saint Nicholas (known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, etc.) While Saint Nicholas now has the reputation of loving all children and visiting them at Christmastime, judging their character and giving gifts to the ‘nice’ ones and lumps of coal to the ‘naughty’ ones, Krampus plays the dangerous sidekick.
A 1900s greeting card reading 'Greetings from the Krampus!' ( Public Domain )
It is believed that the long-horned, shaggy, goat-like monster with a long, angry face and lolling, forked tongue would visit the home of misbehaving children to punish them. It was believed he would give beatings, and kidnap the kids, bringing them down to his underworld lair to live for a year.
According to the centuries-old legends, if a child misbehaved, Saint Nicholas, in his omniscience, would know and send his associate, Krampus. It was said this dark partner with a serpentine tail would turn up to the house during the Christmas season to punish the wicked child; He would beat him with a bundle of birch sticks, whip them with horsehair, and throw him into a sack or wicker basket to take him down to Hell for a year.
Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a Viennese home (1896 illustration). ( Public Domain )
If being good for Santa wasn’t enough for a delinquent, Krampus’ reputation and fearsome appearance terrified children into behaving. As such, it was a useful tale told to children to scare them into goodness.
The Legendary Origins
Historians remain unsure as to the exact origins of the Krampus figure in folklore, but it is believed that like Santa, Krampus predates Christianity, stemming from Norse and Alpine traditions and Germanic paganism. Like many legendary characters, including St. Nicholas himself, Krampus’ image has evolved over time and throughout regions, but Krampus represented a balance of light and dark, providing a harmony between good and evil.
Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. ( Public Domain )
On Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, the eve of December 5, German children took care to not attract the attention of the intimidating beast, in hopes that St. Nicholas would bring presents on Nikolaustag, December 6 .
A greeting card depicting Saint Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria. ( Public Domain )
According to National Geographic, Krampus is believed to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology (Hel, daughter of Loki and overseer of the land of the dead). His name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw. He shares traits with other figures in Greek mythology, such as satyrs and fauns, and has been portrayed in a salacious manner in late 19 th century greeting cards, lusting after buxom women.
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Feared and Loved
The myth of Krampus can be found in the Alpine regions, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, and the legend has gained long legs, reaching across Europe and around the world.
Families traditionally exchanged colorful greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, since the 1800s featuring the sometimes silly, sometimes sinister Krampus.
In the early 20 th century Krampus was prohibited by the Austrian Fascist government, but the tradition was revived with the fall of the government after World War II.
Traditional annual parades are still held in which young men dress as the Krampus, and race through the streets snarling and shaking chains at onlookers.
Krampus parade in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, Austria, 2013. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Many cities and towns, in keeping with old tradition, run a popular Krampuslauf, a sizeable gathering of revelers (largely fortified by alcoholic schnapps) dressed in Krampus costume to chase people through the streets. More than 1200 Austrians gather in Schladming, Styria each year to dress up as Krampus, swatting passers-by with sticks and loudly ringing cowbells. Birch sticks are painted gold and displayed to remind of his arrival.
These days on Krampusnacht, Krampus will commonly accompany St. Nicholas to homes and businesses where St. Nicholas will give out gifts, and Krampus will hand out coal and birch stick bundles.