Winter is the darkest time of year.
⁓The Voice before the Void
In German-speaking Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure. According to traditional narratives around the figure, Krampus punishes children during the Christmas season who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved children with gifts. Regions in the Austrian diaspora feature similar figures and, more widely, Krampus is one of a number of Companions of Saint Nicholas in regions of Europe. The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated a pre-Christian origin for the figure.
Traditional parades in which young men dress as Krampus, such as the Krampuslauf (Krampus run), occur annually in some Alpine towns. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten.
Although Krampus appears in many variations, most share some common physical characteristics. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long, pointed tongue lolls out.
Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. Of more pagan origins are the ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and occasionally swats children with. The ruten have significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites. 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 Hell. This part of the legend refers to the times of the Barbary slave trade, when Barbary pirates from North African bases raided European coasts to abduct the local people into slavery. This quality can be found in other Companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) of Dutch folklore.
The history of the Krampus figure has been theorized as stretching back to pre-Christian traditions. In a brief article discussing the figure, published in 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:
There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to “bind the Devil” but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.
Discussing his observations while in Irdning, a small town in Styria in 1975, anthropologist John J. Honigmann wrote that:
The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays. A large literature, much of it by European folklorists, bears on these subjects. … Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of “heathen” elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.
The Krampus figures persisted, and by the 17th century Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by pairing Krampus with Saint Nicholas.
Countries of the former Habsburg Empire have largely borrowed from Austria the tradition of Krampus accompanying Saint Nicholas on December 5.
In the aftermath of the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Krampus tradition was prohibited by the Dollfuss regime under the Vaterländische Front (Fatherland’s Front) and the Christian Social Party. In the 1950s, the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man.” Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred, and continues today. The Krampus tradition is being revived in Bavaria as well, along with a local artistic tradition of hand-carved wooden masks. There has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated in parts of Europe on December 6. On the preceding evening of December 5, Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), Krampus appears on the streets. Sometimes accompanying Saint Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses. The Saint usually appears in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a ceremonial staff. Unlike North American versions of Santa Claus, in these celebrations Saint Nicholas concerns himself only with the good children, while Krampus is responsible for the bad children. Nicholas dispenses gifts, while Krampus supplies coal and the ruten bundles.
A Krampuslauf is a run of celebrants dressed as Krampus, often fueled by alcohol. It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps, a strong distilled fruit brandy. These runs may include perchten, similarly wild pagan spirits of Germanic folklore and sometimes female in representation, although the perchten are more properly associated with the period between winter solstice and Epiphany or Kings Day, January 6.
Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus since the 1800s. Sometimes introduced with Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from the Krampus), the cards usually have humorous rhymes and poems. Krampus is often featured looming menacingly over children. He is also shown as having one human foot and one cloven hoof. In some, Krampus has sexual overtones; he is pictured pursuing buxom women. Over time, the representation of Krampus in the cards has changed; older versions have a more frightening Krampus, while modern versions have a cuter, more Cupid-like creature. Krampus has also adorned postcards and candy containers.
In Styria, the ruten bundles are presented by Krampus to families. The twigs are painted gold and displayed year-round in the house—a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. In smaller, more isolated villages, Saint Nicholas is nowhere to be seen, and Krampus has other beastly companions, such as the antlered “wild man” figures. These Styrian companions of Krampus are called Schabmänner or Rauhen.
A toned-down version of Krampus is part of the popular Christmas markets in Austrian urban centres such as Salzburg. In these more tourist-friendly interpretations, Krampus is more humorous than fearsome.
Similar figures are recorded in neighboring areas. In most parts of Slovenia, whose culture was greatly affected by Austrian culture, Krampus is called parkelj and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian form of Saint Nicholas.
North American Krampus celebrations, though rare, are a growing phenomenon.
Krampus in North American popular culture
Krampus has entered the popular culture of North America in recent years. This has been met with some considerable controversy, as some are seeing it as part of a “growing movement of anti-Christmas celebrations.”
Brian Joines of Image Comics, publisher of the Krampus! comic book series begun in 2013, suspects that the reason Krampus has not historically been popularized in America is due to “the nature of how we view Christmas in this country, both as a big day for kids and as the birth of a big religious figurehead.”
Michael Dougherty, the writer and director of the 2015 comedy horror film Krampus, states that “Christmas has been invading Halloween for far too long. It’s time to return the favor.”
Examples of works in which a Krampus character plays a significant role include:
- CarnEvil, a 1998 arcade game, features a “freakishly evil St. Nick” boss named Krampus
- The Venture Bros. animated television program 2004 episode “A Very Venture Christmas”
- Chickenhare, a graphic novel series first released in 2006, features as one of the main characters a Krampus named Banjo
- Random Spirit Lover, a 2007 album by the Canadian art rock band Sunset Rubdown, features a picture of Krampus on the back cover
- Krampus: The Yule Lord is a 2012 novel set in Boone County, West Virginia by Gerald Brom, who is more widely known as the artist Brom
- Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated animated television program 2012 episode “Wrath of the Krampus”
- The League live-action television program 2012 episode “A Krampus Carol”
- Krampus!, a comic book series begun in 2013 by Image Comics
- The Aquabats! Super Show! live-action television program 2013 episode “Christmas with The Aquabats!”
- American Dad! animated television program 2013 episode “Minstrel Krampus”
- Grimm live-action television program 2013 episode “Twelve Days of Krampus”
- Krampus, a 2015 American comedy horror film released by Universal Pictures