Throughout the world, traditions have persevered surrounding the Winter Solstice, evolving from old Pagan beliefs and often assimilating into modern Christianity. Much of the old Pagan rituals and symbols can be seen today in modern Christmas or Yuletide celebrations, such as the use of the Yule log, leaving treats or food out over night to be enjoyed by supernatural visitors, and the addition of a roast pig in the holiday feast. One such aspect of Pagan tradition has recently captured the imaginations of people around the world in an exceptional way, unlike any of the others mentioned here: the traditions which honor a being known as Krampus.
Krampus gets his name from the German word “krampen,” which means “claw.” This name is an apt description for this demon, because of his terrifying appearance which includes tremendous, clawed hands. Krampus is depicted as a sort of half-man, half-beast similar to the fauns and satyrs of Greek mythology. He has huge horns like a goat, the tail of a serpent, a forked tongue like that of a lizard or snake. He walks on two hind legs like those of a goat, with cloven hooves which can be heard echoing as he makes his way through the streets on Krampusnacht. He carries with him a bundle of birch branches, a horsehair whip, and heavy chains. On his back can be seen a large wicker basket, or bag.
Tradition and Origins
Currently observed beliefs in Krampus state that he is a companion of St. Nicholas, and acts as his malicious counterpart. It is said that after St. Nicholas has finished judging children based upon their behavior throughout the year, he sends Krampus to deliver punishment to those kids who have been deemed “naughty.” Krampus arrives at the homes of misbehaving children the night before St. Nicholas is to make his rounds and goes into people’s homes to carry out his duties. It is said that he viciously beats the children that he has been sent to punish using either chains, his birch branches, or his whip. Sometimes, he binds children with shackles or stuffs them into his basket or his bag to take them away to his lair in Hell (or the underworld) where they will be kept as prisoners or treated as slaves for a year. Krampusnacht, or “Krampus Night,” is December 5th, the day before Nikolaustag, or (St. Nicholas Day.) which is celebrated on December 6th. If a child is spared punishment by Krampus, they can look forward to a boot on their doorstep the following day, containing a gift from St. Nicholas.
Scholars have not been able to pinpoint a precise time or region of origin for Krampus, but it is believed that he, along with Santa Claus in his various forms, predates Christianity and has evolved and been assimilated into Christian traditions from older Pagan beliefs. His currently accepted counterpart St. Nicholas is a saint of Catholic origin, but Krampus fits into more ancient structures of spiritualism and religion. A common occurrence in ancient mythologies and belief systems is that of the duality of good and evil, so his opposing role with St. Nicholas or Santa Claus suits the relationships that are so prevalent in ancient Pagan stories. Celebrations concerning him are practiced in modern Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. His name, mannerisms, and current region of observance suggest that he may have originated in Germany or the Alpine region of Austria. Similar entities exist throughout European traditions, acting as counterparts to Santa Claus such as Knecht Ruprecht and Belsnickle (Germanic Regions), Hans Trapp and Pere Fouttard (France), and Zwarte (The Netherlands.)
History and Evolution of Celebrations
For quite a while, the Catholic Church forbade any celebrations, artwork, or traditions honoring Krampus because of his association with Paganism and his similar appearance to Satan and demons recognized by Christianity. After a while, the suppression of Krampus weakened, and people began to remember the monstrous companion to St. Nicholas. In the 1890’s, there was an increase in the popularity of postcards and holiday cards in Germany and Austria which prompted a series of entertaining cards depicting Krampus, and this helped to spread awareness of this beastly entity but promoted him in a more amusing and lighthearted manner. During World War 2 however, another effort was made to suppress any expression of interest in Krampus. The Fascist rule in Europe believed that he was created by Social Democrats, and that his personification and attention would increase problematic ideas. Since then however, Krampus has recaptured the fondness of the world. He has been shown in television shows, comic books, movies, and has been celebrated across the world as a more interesting and less traditional way to celebrate the holiday season.
Today, there has been a revitalization of Krampusnacht celebrations throughout the world. Every year in Austria, Germany, and a few other countries in that region of Europe, there is the Krampuslauf, or the Krampus Run. During this parade of sorts, men drink beer and dress up as Krampus or other similar demons, and run through the streets, shaking chains and being generally unruly. This tradition was originally a way to frighten children into behaving but has since evolved into a fun and exciting celebration for adults who get to party and release pent up energy while dressing up.
Basu, T. (2018). National Geographic. Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Beast. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/
Leafloor, L. (2015). Ancient Origins. Santa’s Horned Helper: The Fearsome Legend of Krampus, Christmas Punisher. https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/santa-s-horned-helper-fearsome-legend-krampus-christmas-punisher-004799
Little, B. (2018). History. Meet Krampus, the Christmas Devil Who Punishes Naughty Children. https://www.history.com/news/krampus-christmas-legend-origin