In the Alpine regions of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, the December date for gift giving is not Christmas Day, but “St. Nicholas’ Eve,” December 5th. According to folklore, that’s the day the beloved patron saint of broadcasters, merchants, and (of course) children, goes from house to house in his long, fur-lined robe giving sweets and presents to obedient, well-behaved kids. This version of St. Nicholas isn’t accompanied by eight reindeer, however, but rather by a dreadful, demonic character known as the Krampus.
Krampus (in some regions called Bartl or Klaubauf) is a fearsome devil right out of a child’s worst nightmare: a shaggy Satyr with a forked tongue, ram’s horns, cloven hooves, and a long tail. His job is to terrorize every boy or girl who hasn’t been good enough to warrant St. Nicholas’s generosity. To take care of the “bad” children, Krampus brings along a set of manacles, a sturdy birch switch, and a tub or basket that he carries on his back. His task is to whip disobedient kids with his switch, lock them in chains, plunk them in his container, and drag them off to throw into the nearest body of water. (Which, on an early December evening in an Alpine village, would be a particularly chilly and unpleasant fate indeed.)
The origins of the Krampus legend stretch back to pre-Christian folklore — a cautionary avatar of the hazards of going abroad on a dark, snowy night. But unlike other folk traditions that have been incorporated into Christmas lore, the Krampus has lost none of its ferocity and pagan beastliness. The name itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is derived from the Bavarian word “krampn,” which means, “lifeless, or dried out.” (The origin of the name is debatable; other sources say it comes from an old word for “claw.”)
In many regions of Germany and Austria, festivals called Krampuslauf (or “the running of the Krampus”) are held in which revelers don elaborate (and downright ghastly) costumes and parade through the crowded streets twirling blazing sparklers, dragging clattering chains, and swinging whips and staves at anyone not quick enough to get out of their way. Once the parade passes through, there’s nothing but cheering spectators — and quite a few weeping children — left in its wake.
Krampusnacht (Krampus’ night) was marked throughout the 19th century with Krampuskarten: holiday postcards depicting the devilish Krampus tormenting repentant German youngsters with the greeting, Gruss vom Krampus (or, “Cheers, from the Krampus”). Ironically, the Krampusnacht traditions were carried on right through the 1930s until the Nazi government launched a concerted campaign to wipe out the old “rustic” traditions, which they felt were inappropriate for a respectable, modern nation like Germany. (Ironically, it was the Third Reich, and not the Krampus, that proved to be the real embodiment of terror and barbarism.)
More recently, images of the Krampus have begun to reappear around Christmastime. In the 1960s, several European ad campaigns created “vintage” images of the Krampus not as a tormentor, but as an impish seducer, wooing scantily clad maidens and frisky housewives. In 1998 an arcade video game called CarnEvil included the Krampus as one of its rampaging “boss” characters. Krampus lore was even featured on an episode of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in a segment “Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude” satirizing conservative complaints about disrespect for “old-fashioned” Christmas celebrations.
Though Krampus has long been part of European folklore, the German Christmas-devil is becoming more recognized – and even popularized – as part of American holiday celebrations with each passing year. Perhaps the dark-hearted Krampus provides a needed counterpoint to the relentless blitz of sugarplums-and-candy canes imagery of the Christmas season – a “yin” to the “yang” of Hallmark holiday TV specials and cheery department store Santa’s workshop dioramas.
Or perhaps, in a time when political corruption and corporate greed seem to be running unchecked, the notion of a terrifying figure who holds wrongdoers accountable in a pitiless and cruel manner strikes us as an especially satisfying and necessary aspect of the Christmas spirit in the 21st century.
Whatever the case, there’s no arguing that the traditional German holiday monster is rampaging his way into the American Christmas scene.
Read Scott Farrell’s story “A Krampus Carol,” one of 12 terrifying tales of Krampus lore, in the new anthology Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights Of Krampus (World Weaver Press, 2014) now available in paperback and Kindle formats.