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 19th 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 20th 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.
In addition to Krampus, Santa traditionally enjoyed a host of different companions depending on region and culture, reflecting local history and beliefs. These mythical figures have many common traits, and generally play the role of punisher or abductor, in contrast to the benevolent and generous saint. They often carried a rod, stick, or broom, were usually dressed in black rags, and were shaggy, with unruly hair.
Elves, kobolds, or pre-Christian house-spirits of English and Scandinavian tradition were believed to be gift makers or bringers, but didn’t share the same elevated status as Saint Nick and his companion.
In Germany, Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert, Servant Rupert) was an old man with a long beard dressed in straw or covered in fur. He accompanied St. Nicholas and carried a bag of ashes, and one might hear his coming due to the ringing of tiny bells sewn into his clothing. Knecht Ruprecht expected children to be able to recite Christian catechism or say their prayers, whereupon he would give them fruit or gingerbread. If they hadn’t learned their lessons, it was said he’d leave them a stick or a lump of coal in their shoes at best, and at worst he’d place the children in a sack, and either eat them or throw them in a river. Ruprecht became a common name for the devil in German.
Illustration of Knecht Ruprecht, 1863. (Public Domain)
In Palatinate, Germany, as well as Pennsylvania in the United States, and in the east coast of Canada the companion is named Belsnickel. A scary figure, much like Knecht Ruprect, this partner visits at Christmas and hands out gifts or punishments. In some regions, this figure is dressed as a female, and called the Christmas Woman. She is thoroughly disguised in female clothing, with cloth wrapped around the head and face, and carries sweets and cakes, as well as a long switch which acts like a swatting stick, or a charmed wand.
Drawing of the Belsnickel by Ralph Dunkleberger. (Flicker/CC BY 2.0)
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is an old mythical figure of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg who has become a controversial figure in modern times. Traditionally a blackamoor (African male figure usually symbolizing a servant), he was characterized as a Moor from Spain, and a helper to St. Nicholas who was to amuse children and give candy. Actors portraying Zwarte Piet would wear ‘blackface’—dark makeup, curly black wigs and red lipstick—a practice which is now seen as a racist stereotype. Appearances of Zwarte Piet are now protested in the Netherlands.
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Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (CC BY 3.0)
The legend of Krampus isn’t in fear of dying out, as it is in fact gaining in popularity, even though there are those who believe the devil-like Krampus figure is inappropriate for children, or he is believed to have been altered to suit modern anti-Christmas sentiments:
“Like it or not, the modern image Krampus has been hijacked from all good intentions he may have enjoyed in folklore. He is cemented now in several cultures as a monster alone with no good to be imposed on anyone by his presence.
He is the personification of fear and the ultimate Christmas nightmare – much to the delight of adults who want to act like the very children Krampus was intended to correct,” writes the editor of MyMerryChristmas.com.
It is good to remember that Krampus, while appearing to be a demon, is not the anti-Santa however. Since ancient times he has worked alongside Santa to ensure that people had respect, behaved, and were good to each other (in his own unorthodox way). What better holiday sentiment can there be?
By: Liz Leafloor
Basu, Tanya. “Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil” 2013. NationalGeographic.com [Online] Available here.
My Merry Christmas (Ed).“The Misunderstood Legend of Krampus”. 2015. MyMerryChristmas.com [Online] Available at: http://mymerrychristmas.com/the-misunderstood-legend-of-krampus/
Jacobs, Becky. “Krampus is coming to theaters for Christmas”. 2015. GrandForksHerald.com [Online] Available here.
Malm, Sara. "Dance of the devil: Santa's evil sidekick The Krampus". 2015. DailyMail.co.uk [Online] Available here.
Blitz, Matt. “Krampus, The Christmas Demon” 2014. TodayIFoundOut.com [Online] Available here.
Senay Boztas, Meppel. “Dutch 'Black Pete' makes annual arrival to howls of protest”. 2015. Telegraph.co.uk [Online] Available here.