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).
Nobody seems to be completely sure how the Krampus came to be, or where exactly he comes from. Most people, however, agree that Krampus pre-dates Christianity, and was an ancient figure before the Lord Jesus Christ was born to save the world from its own sins. Maurice Bruce, in his 1958 article on the beast, argues that the Krampus is descended from “the Horned God of the Witches”, and that the bundles of birch twigs he carries are both a phallic symbol and have some connection to the “initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death” (“Krampus”, Wikipedia). The “Horned God” is indeed pre-Christian, quite possibly dating back to the Paleolithic Era. A horned figure that appears to be half man and half stag can be seen painted on a wall in the Caverne des Trois Frères, which can be found in Ariège, France. But in her book The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, & Wicca (Facts on File, 2008), Rosemary Guiley says that the Horned God is considered to be “gentle, tender and compassionate yet is not effeminate”. She also notes that there is absolutely no connection between the Horned God and the Devil whatsoever, unlike the case is with Krampus (Guiley 170). Doesn’t sound much like the child-torturing Krampus, does it? The Horned God was eventually demonized by the Church, so the Christmas Devil may have gained at least some of his more fearsome traits from this time. Even so, it is very unlikely that the Krampus is derived entirely from the demonization of this ancient deity.
Another possible origin comes from Tanya Basu’s 2013 National Geographic article, entitled “Who is Krampus?” She suggests that Krampus is the son of Hel, the goddess of the dead and the Queen of Niflheim (Helheim) in Norse mythology (Basu 2013). But only three or four of the other sources that were consulted in researching this blog entry mention anything about Hel or Norse mythology having any sort of connection with the Krampus legend. And while Hel is the goddess of death and the dead, the Krampus himself wants little or nothing to do with the dead. While the Krampus might not have any objections to killing really bad kids, the beast has no interest whatsoever in that shadowy, depressing realm.
Another possibly deity that might have a connection to the Krampus is the German goddess Perchta, a horrifying figure originating from pre-Christian Germanic pagan traditions. According to folklore, Perchta wears a white robe and has one large foot (the other is normal). This is sometimes referred to as a “goose foot” or a “swan foot” in Alpine traditions, which Jacob Grimm believed connected her to a “higher being” that was capable of shapeshifting and taking on an animal form (“Perchta”, Wikipedia). According to Stephanie Weber, she would slice open the bellies of sleeping people, remove the vital organs, and stuff them with straw if they hadn’t left her any offerings on her feast day. However, she would enter a house on Mid-Winter’s Eve and leave presents for the children who worked hard and obeyed their elders. But on the other hand, she would punish those who were lazy. Some of her traits were eventually incorporated into Krampus beliefs in the 1600s (Weber 2014). However, Perchta is a female goddess, and Krampus is male. And while Perchta gives and punishes, the Krampus contents himself with punishing children.
One final possibility is that the Krampus was once a pagan fertility god, possibly Celtic in nature. According to Annie Riordan, this deity once roamed the forests of Europe, where it was worshipped by the indigenous barbarian tribes. Eventually, the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ made its way into the rural regions of the Alps, converting many of those same tribes into Christians. This fertility god, with his horns and his cloven hooves, quickly became associated with Satan and the realm of Hell. This creature gradually became something to be feared, rather than worshipped and revered (Riordan 2009). Soon, the Krampus was forced into hiding. However, his exile was by no means permanent…
During the Inquisition, which began in the early 1200s and lasted until the late 1700s (Guiley 177-179), the Krampus very briefly resurfaced. However, the early Catholic Church strongly discouraged any kind of festivities that had anything to do with goats or goatlike creatures (i.e. Krampus), and great efforts were made by the Inquisitors to stomp such beliefs out of existence. In fact, the Church would put anyone who impersonated or even dressed like the Devil to death for heresy (Ward 2011)! Needless to say, it wasn’t a good time for Krampus to come out of hiding. But the Krampus is nothing if not patient, and is always content to bide his time until opportunity knocks on his front door.
Eventually, the Krampus reappeared in the 1600s, and was fully incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by the Church. This was done by pairing him with Saint Nicholas himself. From this point on, the Krampus would punish misbehaving children, while Saint Nick rewarded the good kids. His popularity only increased from here on. During the 1700s and the 1800s, people really began to take an interest in the Yuletide Demon. He began appearing on holiday greeting cards (known as Krampuskarten), which featured lavish illustrations of the demon torturing children and caught in some very sexual situations with gorgeous, half-dressed women. Most of these featured the moniker “Grüss vom Krampus” (literally, “Greetings from the Krampus”), which may have been one way of telling a friend or a loved one that they had been naughty that year, and which is still in use today. Another reason for the Christmas Devil’s soaring popularity are the old German folktales collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in the early 1800s. In fact, the Krampus even gets a brief mention in Jacob’s 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie (“Teutonic Mythology”), which added even more fuel to the fire (Blitz 2014). This popularity continued into the early twentieth century. But soon after, the Krampus had a new enemy: Fascism.
In 1934, after the Austrian Civil War and four years before the rise of the Third Reich, all traditions involving the Krampus were officially forbidden by the Austrian government’s Dollfuss regime under the Vaterländische Front (literally, “Fatherland’s Front”) and the Christian Social Party. That same year, The New York Times published an article entitled “Krampus Disliked in Fascist Austria”, which reported that the Krampus had been labeled “the work of wicked Social Democrats”. The police were ordered to arrest anyone dressed as the Christmas Devil on sight. But after World War II, the Dollfuss regime collapsed, and Krampus traditions flared up again (“Krampus”, Wikipedia; Ward 2011; Blitz 2014). But a few years later, in the early 1950s, the Krampus once again made the international news. This time, a man by the name of Dr. Ernst Kotbauer published a pamphlet entitled “Krampus is an Evil Man”, which was distributed by the Austrian government in Vienna. This pamphlet voiced concerns that an encounter with the Krampus could leave children psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives. In other words, he was far too frightening! Dr. Kotbauer urged that the Krampus and all other associated traditions be discarded. In a 1953 Time Magazine article (the name of which is unknown), Dr. Kotbauer is quoted as saying “There is too much fear in the world already…unemployment, high taxes, not to mention the atom bomb. Let’s begin by throwing out Krampus” (Ward 2011). But despite Herr Kotbauer’s efforts, his little pamphlet did absolutely bupkis to stop the Krampus traditions from pushing on.
In the 1960s, the Krampus went from being scary to being sexy. According to Scott Farrel’s article “Krampus: From Folklore to Pop Culture”, a number of ad campaigns in Europe began to produce so-called “vintage” images in the form of Krampuskarten, which portray the Krampus “as an impish seducer, wooing scantily clad maidens and frisky housewives” (“Krampus”, Scott Farrell). These cards became wildly popular, reinforcing the notion that sex sells. And to this day, they still continue to sell. It’s surprising that these postcards didn’t come out a decade later in the 1970s, since pornography became a booming industry in that era. But this eventually ran its course, and the Christmas Devil resumed torturing naughty little boys and girls. Krampus traditions have remained more or less the same ever since.
In all of the articles and the sources that were used to research this entry, next to none of them have revealed any weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can be used against the Krampus. However, some answers may be found in Ryan Hurd’s 2012 article “Horror for the Holidays: Santa, Krampus, and the Dark Divine.” In this article, Hurd states that many of the Christmas traditions that people are so fond of are actually intended to keep evil spirits out of one’s home. Evergreen wreaths of pine and spruce are amulets used to keep death and disease out of a house when hung on the front door, while garlands bound with red ribbons have kept evil spirits at bay for hundreds of years. Even the annoying tradition of caroling was once used to ritually bless apple orchards and to keep malevolent spirits out of them, thereby ensuring a good harvest the next year (Hurd 2012). It may be possible that these very same traditions can be used to keep the Krampus at bay, although it may not keep him from sliding down the chimney like old Saint Nick. And since the Krampus is generally thought to be a demon, it seems likely that iron and salt can be utilized as defensive measures against the monster as well. However, if these methods should fail, all hope isn’t lost. The best way to ward off the Krampus is for children to simply be obedient to their parents and to behave themselves all year around.
As for killing the Krampus, it just may not be possible. Of course, since the Christmas Demon plays such an important role in making kids behave and do what their parents tell them to do, most adults wouldn’t even dream of trying to kill the Krampus. Punishing bad little boys and girls is his job, after all. But if such drastic measures become necessary, the old stand-bys of decapitation and burning the creature’s body afterwards are always something to fall back on. One might also try piercing the beast’s heart with a sharpened candy cane. Keep in mind, however, that this will most likely make the Krampus very angry. Either that, or it’ll just make him laugh hysterically. Still, in a desperate situation, anything is worth a try.
Today, the Krampus is not only feared, but he is also celebrated as well. In the last decade or so, the Christmas Devil has become just as popular as Santa Claus, and may even surpass the jolly old guy one day. And just as Santa has December 24th covered, the Krampus has his own day: December 5th, otherwise known as Krampusnacht (literally, “Krampus Night”). This celebration precedes Saint Nicholas’ Day, which takes place the very next day (December 6th). On this particular night, the Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas as he wanders from one house to another. And while Saint Nicholas gives out small gifts and treats to the good children, the Krampus hands out birch-twig beatings and big chunks of coal to the bad ones. But Krampusnacht isn’t the end of the horror.
During the first week of December, communities and towns throughout the European Alps hold their annual Krampuslauf (literally, “Krampus Run”). This festival is a huge deal throughout the Alpine regions, and everyone participates. In the Krampuslauf, young men disguise themselves in costumes made from dyed goat and sheep hides, and put on handcarved wooden masks with genuine sheep horns or deer antlers attached. They put mismatched shoes on their feet, and carry rusty chains, whips, bells, baskets, and bundles of birch twigs with them. Each one of these masks is painstakingly carved with traditional hand tools, and the end result is truly horrifying. Many of the younger men do this competitively, as the masks are in great demand during this time of the year. But the purpose these masks are carved for is both fascinating and very frightening (“Krampus”, Monstropedia; Riordan 2009).
Once all of the preparations are made, the real fun begins. Dozens of men dressed in these costumes (each one of them is unique) take to the streets, prowling about in search of wayward children and beautiful young women, whom these men wildly chase down the streets, screaming like banshees all the while. They wave their ruten about menacingly, and will actually swat anyone that gets too close (“Krampus”, Monstropedia; Riordan 2009). Oftentimes these men go from door to door, and they are let into the house by the parents. These Krampus imitators proceed to torment the young children while screaming and brandishing their chains and birch sticks, scaring the literal shit out of the little ones and ensuring that they remember to behave themselves during the coming year. This celebration culminates with the masked marauders being invited to share a few drinks with the laughing parents, with the traditional offering being beer and schnapps (Feldmann 2010). One of the largest Krampuslauf events in Europe takes place in Schladming, Styria, where over twelve hundred people dress up as the fabled Christmas Devil and run amok, whacking people that get too close with sticks and noisily jangling cowbells (Leafloor 2015). This tradition has become extremely popular in other parts of Europe and even in America. But regardless of where this celebration takes place, there are always quivering, crying children left in its wake.
Over the last few years, the Krampus has taken ahold of popular culture. He seems to be everywhere during the holidays. He has appeared in two very popular books by Monte Beauchamp: The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards (Fantagraphics Books, 2004) and Krampus: The Devil of Christmas (Last Gasp, 2010). He has been featured in novels and literature, like as Gerald Brom’s Krampus: The Yule Lord (Harper Voyager, 2012).The beast has his very own series from Image Comics (entitled Krampus!), and there is even Krampus erotica (in e-book format) available on Amazon. The Christmas Devil has also appeared on television shows like American Dad! (S10/Ep08, “Minstrel Krampus”), Supernatural (S3/Ep08, “A Very Supernatural Christmas”), Grimm (S3/Ep08, “Twelve Days of Krampus”), The Aquabats! Super Show! (“Christmas with the Aquabats!”, 2013), Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (S2/Ep13, “Wrath of the Krampus”), and The Venture Bros. (“A Very Venture Christmas”, 2004). The Krampus has also made an appearance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, in a segment entitled “The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude – Hallmark & Krampus”. On December 9th, 2009, the comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert was visited on set by the Krampus himself. The Krampus appeared complete with his flailing chains, uttering curses in German, and creating general mischief and hilarity. He even shattered Stephen’s Christmas cookie plate in the process! This appearance has made the Krampus more popular than ever before (Riordan 2009). He was also featured as a boss character in an awful first-person shooter arcade game called CarnEvil. And last (but certainly not least), the Krampus appeared in his own feature film earlier this month. On December 4th, 2015, Krampus was released into theaters. Ironically, the movie came out the day before Krampusnacht. So far, the film has received mixed reviews, but the author of this blog would still very much like to see the movie while it’s still in theaters. But needless to say, the Krampus has taken popular culture by the horns.
Today, the Krampus is still spoken of and is still very much feared by children and adults alike throughout Germany and the surrounding Alpine countries. The fear permeates these cultures during the Christmas season, but it is nearly forgotten during the rest of the year. The Krampus is now an icon in popular culture, but people need to remember that behind these traditions is a dark, horrible monster that takes great delight in torturing children and won’t hesitate to kill the little ones for their misdeeds. But one question remains: does the Krampus truly exist? Given that the traditions of the Christmas Devil date back to pre-Christian times and have been around for many, many centuries, one is inclined to think so. And as long as people continue to believe in Santa Claus, then the Krampus will continue to frighten children all over the world for years to come.
This blog entry is a complete revision of my original research on the Krampus, which was originally published on December 30th, 2012. Whereas the original had only three pages of text, the revision has just under eight pages of information. Moving on, I would like to thank Octavio Ramos and Nathan Brown for their help in researching this. You guys are great friends, and that's so hard to find in today's world. Thank You!!
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft & Wicca. Third Edition. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.
"Krampus". Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. December 22, 2015. Accessed November 27, 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus>
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"Perchta". Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. August 27, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perchta>
Basu, Tanya. "Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil." National Geographic. December 19, 2013. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/>
Billock, Jennifer. "The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa." Smithsonian Magazine. December 4, 2015. Accessed on December 7, 2015. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/krampus-could-come-you-holiday-season-180957438/>
Blitz, Matt. "Krampus, the Christmas Demon." Today I Found Out. December 11, 2014. Accessed on December 7, 2015. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/12/krampus-christmas-demon/>
Farrell, Scott. "Krampus: From Folklore to Pop Culture." Scott Farrell. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://scottfarrellauthor.com/krampus-folklore-pop-culture/>
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HF. "Krampus, the Christmas Devil of Alpine Europe." The German Way. December 2, 2015. Accessed on December 22, 2015. <http://www.german-way.com/krampus-the-christmas-devil-of-alpine-europe/>
Hurd, Ryan. "Horror for the Holidays: Santa, Krampus, and the Dark Divine." The Teeming Brain. December 24, 2012. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.teemingbrain.com/2012/12/24/horror-for-the-holidays-santa-krampus-and-the-dark-divine/>
Jones, Sue. "Krampus: An Online Resource Guide to Saint Nicholas’ Counterpart." DateHookup.com. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.datehookup.com/singles-content-krampus-an-online-resource-guide-to-saint-nicholas-counterpart.htm>
Leafloor, Liz. "Santa’s Horned Helper: The Fearsome Legend of Krampus, Christmas Punisher." Ancient Origins. December 3, 2015. Accessed on December 7, 2015. <http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/santa-s-horned-helper-fearsome-legend-krampus-christmas-punisher-004799>
Mankey, Jason. "The Krampus." Patheos. December 1, 2015. Accessed on December 7, 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2015/12/the-krampus/>
Maxwell, Jenna. "The History of Krampus." Halloween Express. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.halloweenexpress.com/the-history-of-krampus.php>
Ramos, Octavio. "Monster of the Week: Krampus." Examiner. December 24, 2013. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.examiner.com/article/monster-of-the-week-krampus>
Ridenour, Al. "The Truth About Krampus." Atlas Obscura. November 29, 2013. Accessed on December 22, 2015. <http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-truth-about-krampus>
Riordan, Annie. "Krampus: The German Christmas Demon." Brutal As Hell. December 14, 2009. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.brutalashell.com/2009/12/krampus-the-german-christmas-demon/> (Now Defunct)
Ward, Chris. "10 Fun Facts About Krampus, the Christmas Devil." The Robot’s Voice. December 23, 2011. Accessed on November 27, 2015. <http://www.therobotsvoice.com/2011/12/10_fun_facts_about_krampus_the_christmas_demon_1.php
Weber, Stephanie. "Krampus, the Terrifying Christmas Beast Who Whips Bad Children." Modern Notion. December 22, 2014. Accessed on December 7, 2015. <http://modernnotion.com/krampus-christmas-beast-whips-bad-children/>