You’ve heard the name, you might have seen the movie, but who exactly is Krampus? And where does the story come from? Let’s find out.
Who is Krampus?
For a few hundred years, mostly Christian children of the western world have been delighted and surprised by the prospect of gifts from Santa Claus. The jolly old elf squeezes himself down the chimney with whatever their heart desires, lying in wait for the next year and taking stock of whatever they do from a safe distance in his lair atop the inhospitable north pole. Children, to the duplicitous Santa Claus, come in only two varieties: good and bad. Good children are rewarded with toys, bicycles and underwear. In some parts of the world Santa Claus is practical to a fault. Bad children receive absolutely nothing at all, or possibly a lump of coal. A terrible fate indeed.
Unless you’re a bad child from the alpine regions of Europe. Then a demon comes to you late at night, punishes you for your misdeeds, and gives you coal and a bundle of golden sticks that you must leave in plain sight all year to remember him by. After that, he’ll leave, but only if you give him Schnapps. The demon in question? The reviled Krampus.
What is his history?
The idea of Krampus is thought to originate from Norse mythology, pre-dating the traditions of Christmas in many of the countries observing his arrival. Similar to Krampus is the tradition of Perchten, manimals that arrive at various points throughout winter and and even hang out with St. Nicholas when he comes to town. The idea of Perchten has rolled into the Krampus mythos with time. While there seems to be some contention over the exact lineage of Krampus himself, a popular theory is that he is the son of Hel, Norse lord of the underworld. Regardless of the awesome origin of his birth, there seems to be no variance in the fact that he is a demon-like creature.
Standing at around the size of an average man, perhaps a little shorter, the Krampus is popularly characterized as a satyr, a creature possessing human and goat qualities. His face is vaguely human, covered in matted fur, with an exaggerated bone structure and two horns of indeterminate length. You know, like Satan! Sometimes he dresses in a dingy red garb reminiscent of his jollier counterpart. Sometimes he’s au naturale. The fact that his depiction varies is a testament to the creature’s age and theological/folktale roots.
Each winter in the alpine regions is marked by two important dates, December 5th, the arrival of St. Nicholas, and December 6th. Krampusnacht. Many regions seem to have rolled Krampusnacht celebrations in to coincide with St. Nick’s arrival on the 5th. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure. I hopped onto Rick Steeves’ private jet to visit the alps and he kicked me out somewhere over Tampa. Someone please find me and return me to Ohio, I’ve had to take a job at Hooters and it’s extremely demeaning as I am a dishwasher here.
As I was saying, the arrival of St. Nicholas is celebrated with reverence and joy. There’s typically a parade and Santa passes out all kinds of goodies to the boys and girls. He even makes house calls and stops by to meet with families. What makes this all a little strange is the fact that he is accompanied by the aforementioned Perchten. They hang close to St. Nick and prove how great he is by demonstrating subservience. I’m sure they do other things, like wander into the kitchen and eat cookies or some such things. If I were a Perchten, I’d probably wear sunglasses and flip a quarter while I leaned against a wall like a scofflaw. That’d teach ‘em. After all is said and done, the saint and his animorphian crew just leave town and everyone’s all the better for it.
Now, assuming there is a separate Krampusnacht, things take a turn. If it’s rolled in with St. Nick’s special day, it can certainly dampen the mood. Things start off with a Krampuslauf. That’s a Krampus run, folks. An army of adults dressed as Perchten or Krampus run amok through the village in terrifyingly realistic costumes. The closest level of comparison I can think of is a Halloween parade where the costumes are all created by Rick Baker (he’s a special effects guy. He created the makeup in An American Werewolf in London). They run up to kids and scream at them, or shake bells at them, or poke them with sticks. The kids enjoy this, and I’m sure the adults like to hit kids with sticks as well. Here’s a video of one such Krampuslauf.
There have been attempts throughout history to stop the Krampus in his cloven tracks, but they never seem to take. The earliest recorded attempt was in the 12th century, when the Catholic church noticed the celebrations and thought that Krampus was a bit too devilish for their tastes. Despite the reach of the church, the celebrations continued and Rome was probably a little butthurt for a while. In the 1930s, the Christian Social Party of Austria tried the same damned thing. Obviously, they had to kick rocks as well.
Krampus culture has spread thanks to the Internet and immigration over the years. Here in America, the Pennsylvania Dutch have celebrated various old world traditions during their time with us. One of which is another Anti-Claus, Der Belsnickel. He represents the good and bad aspects of the ‘gift-giver’ mythos. He presents good children with gifts and punishes bad children by poking them with sticks (what’s up with all of this stick poking?) or giving them coal. As one might guess, some versions of Belsnickel roll with the Kramp himself in spectacular fashion in some parts of Germany. In some other parts of the U.S. there are Krampusnacht celebrations in the center of town, such as Cincinatti.
Why must I know about Krampus?
Great question. He’s been all over the place the last few years! Comics and television, and he even got a movie of his very own in 2015. Our pop culture has been eyeing the Krampus for a few years now. With that in mind, the next page contains a few of the most popular appearances within recent history complete with my Krampiness rating of how it stacks up to the mythos.