In the spirit of this Christmas season, I have researched a creature that many have undoubtedly heard of, but none have actually seen. Enjoy!
In this day and age, everyone knows who Santa Claus is. He’s a jolly, overly-plump man in a red suit with white fur trim and wearing a matching hat, having a distinctive twinkle in his eyes, a cherry-red nose, and a long, snow-white beard on his chin…right? In recent times, people have become aware that good old Saint Nick has a dark counterpart, a bestial creature that punishes naughty, troublesome children who don’t behave themselves during the year, especially during the Christmas season. Such children are stuffed into a large sack, and they are seldom ever seen or heard from again. He is known by many names across the European continent: Knecht Ruprecht, Zwart Piet, Black Peter, Cert, Perchten, Pelznickel, Bartl, Parkelj, Niglobartl, and Klaubauf. However, one particular name stands out above all the rest: Krampus. His name has terrified Germany and the surrounding countries for hundreds of years, and the Christmas Devil shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
According to Germanic folklore, the Krampus (pronounced krahm-pus) is a monstrous horned demon – the spitting image of the Devil himself – that accompanies Saint Nicholas while he visits the remote villages of the Alpine countries of Europe during the Christmas season. While old Saint Nick hands out gifts and treats to all the good boys and girls, it is the Krampus who metes out punishment to the naughty ones. The name krampus itself is thought to be derived from the old High German word krampen, which means “claw” or “to seize”. Much of the folklore about the Krampus can be found in Germany, Austria, Poland, Styria, Bavaria, Hungary, Switzerland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Croatia. And since his popularity has increased so dramatically in the last decade or two, he can be found in other parts of Europe and even America as well.
If anyone has ever seen the Krampus, they haven’t come forward with a description as of yet. But then again, it can be assumed that those who do see this Yuletide Demon either disappear and are never seen again, or die under mysterious circumstances soon afterwards. The actual appearance of the monster varies slightly from one region to the next, but otherwise his features remain consistent. The Krampus is described as having long, curving horns like those of a mountain goat or a ram, pointed ears, glowing yellow eyes, sharp fangs, a very long tongue that is said to be pointed or forked like a snake’s, clawed fingers, and a tail with a tuft of fur or a barb like an arrowhead on the tip. He towers over his victims, standing at seven feet in height and having a muscular body that is covered in matted black hair (Weber 2014). Some say that his feet are mismatched, with one being a cloven hoof and the other a bear’s paw. Sometimes, the Krampus may be seen as a sinister-looking gentleman dressed entirely in black (“The History of Krampus”, Jenna Maxwell). Overall, the Krampus is truly a horrifying monster!
The Krampus is most often depicted as carrying a large sack over his shoulder (much like Santa Claus), or he otherwise wears a large wicker basket, a wooden barrel, or even a washtub on his back (Ward 2011; Ramos 2013). He sometimes wears iron manacles on his wrists, and carries rusty chains and tarnished bells. These the demon brandishes and jangles noisily, both for dramatic effect and to create fear within the hearts of his victims. The chains and the manacles are thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church, while bells have long been believed to repel demons and evil spirits. Either that, or the bells are used just because they make a lot of noise (“Krampus”, Wikipedia). The Krampus is known to carry a three-pronged pitchfork on occasion, much like the Devil himself. In every depiction of the beast, however, the Krampus is shown carrying bundles of birch twigs called ruten, which are thought to be a pagan fertility symbol and serve a very dark (and painful) purpose.
The Krampus has only one purpose, and that is to punish wicked, misbehaving children. This is a task that the Yuletide Devil takes a perverse delight in performing, and yet at the same time, it is a job that he takes very seriously as well. Much like Saint Nicholas, the Krampus knows which children have been bad or good. If the child has been mostly good and only a little naughty, the little one is subjected to a rigorous test on religious catechism. Considering that the Krampus is thought to represent the Devil, it really isn’t surprising that the beast would know a thing or two about religious education. If the kid passes, then he or she may have their gifts. If not, the monster pulls out his ruten and viciously beats the children to within an inch or so of their lives. Saint Nicholas just watches, keeping out of the picture due to his saintly status (Ward 2011). However, he may tell the demon when to stop, as having to watch something so brutal is both horribly disturbing and has the capability to unhinge a person’s mind. Needless to say, the old biblical saying of “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24) suits the Krampus very well.
For children that revel in their misdeeds and enjoy being bad just for the hell of it, stopping at a beating with a bundle of birch twigs would be far too lenient for the Krampus. The Christmas Devil has mastered a wide variety of tortures and punishments, and he won’t hesitate to use them on the worst offenders (Ward 2011). Anything less would be a dreadful waste of his talents. After beating the kids with his ruten, the beast may stuff them into his bag and carry them off to his lair, which is said to be deep within Germany’s Black Forest. Once there, the monster inflicts further punishment on the children until they repent of their sins and wrongdoings (Feldmann 2010). If the kids get lucky, they just might make it home for Christmas. If not, the Krampus may decide to slaughter and devour the children, or he might just drag them down into the fiery bowels of Hell (Ramos 2013).
According to a popular series of postcards from the 1800s, the Krampus can get very creative with his tortures. According to these postcards, the Krampus thoroughly enjoys ripping pigtails off of little girls’ heads, clapping children in shackles, viciously pulling their ears, throwing kids off of a cliff, pulling off their fingernails, stuffing them into a sack and throwing them into a river, making them beg on their knees for mercy, drowning children in large containers of black ink and pulling their bodies out with a pitchfork, and finally, tossing them onto a train headed straight for Hell (Ward 2011; “Krampus”, Monstropedia). With all of this being said, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the Krampus won't hesitate to kill any children that he feels are deserving of such a fate. He doesn’t care whether these little boys and girls have parents and families that love and care for them. To the Krampus, punishment is absolute. Punishment cannot be avoided or reasoned with, and neither can the Krampus.