Krampus, a half-goat, half-daemon of centuries-old Bavarian-Alpine lore, appears prior to the celebration of the benevolent giver Saint Nicholas on December 6th, where Central European communities have a Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, the night before.
The Dark Spirit of Christmas from Central Europe
Krampus is the devilish child-punishing companion of St. Nikolaus (Nicholas). On December 6th, Nicholas brings joy and presents to good children throughout Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The historical Saint Nicholas, commemorated and revered among many Christian religions, is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students in various cities and countries around Europe. Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his 6th December feast day.
The evening before, “Krampusnacht,” Krampus visits the children, St. Nicholas’s sort of alter-ego, a fanged and horned figure who rises from the wilds to torment bad children. Beyond Europe, Krampus parties and parades now happen across the United States, and the figure has his own movie and comic book series.
Krampuslauf Graz 2010 – Annual Krampus Holiday Parade Brings Out Hundreds of Daemons in Austria
Christian and Pagan Origins
His name is derived from the German word krampen, which means claw, said to be the son of Hel, who rules the realm of the dead in Norse mythology. Some inspiration comes from pre-Christian Alpine pagan traditions, but some dispute this, saying he is a purely Christian creation.
Furry, cloven hooves with horns and a long tongue, he carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains to whip naughty children for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. The ringing of bells, and use of other noisemakers, like the lighting of bonfires, can be considered a pagan practice intended to alternately drive off and attract certain spirits (good or bad) wandering the earth at pivotal points in the year.
Further pagan origins are the ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and occasionally swats children with. The ruten, posited by Maurice Bruce in 1958, have significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites of certain witch-covens. Including its phallic significance, the rites entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The birch branches are replaced with a whip in some representations.
Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a washtub strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to the Underworld. He furthermore shares characteristics with demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
The Christians probably moved pagan solstice traditions up a few weeks to coincide with the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, fusing the traditions together. In Alpine areas, the figure bringing rewards and punishments was Frau Perchta, and her entourage, wandering the earth between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6), were called the Perchten.
Among them, the Schiachperchten or “bad Perchten” are visually all but identical to the costumes worn to represent Krampus.
What should Krampus look like?
Long before the circulation of any postcards or books such as Monte Beauchamp’s standardizing his red-devil-image, the isolating Alpine terrain of Krampus’ native habitat encouraged strong regional variations. And without any grounding source text to nail down his appearance, the original Krampus would have been a shapeless bogeyman defined only by oral tradition, a freeform figure variously described by parents and other storytellers.
These sexual, earthy, animal-human deities like Krampus challenge everything the early Christians venerated as holy. They’re not “evil” objectively, of course, but they are indeed evil within the value system of early Christianity. Christian holidays are filled with these ancient religious symbols, such as the pagan origins of the Christmas tree was regarded as pagan and the Yule Log as symbols of the solstice.
For those rebelling against the commercialization of the Year-End Holiday season, the Winter Solstice, Krampus’ wild running and scaring the children, has a calming and balancing effect on the pious and non. He hits on our love for nature spirits marauding wild out there, who we must have respect for, or pay the price.
Updated 23 February 2017