According to tradition, children are rewarded for good behavior on the Christian holiday of Christmas. Boys and girls who have been nice instead of naughty can look forward to receiving gifts delivered by Santa Claus or St. Nicholas. The naughty ones will receive no gifts at all, or worse, a lump of coal.
According to one German legend, naughty children have a lot more to worry about than coal in their stockings. They might receive a visit from a monstrous creature called Krampus. Krampus is a far cry from jolly Santa. His job is to help Santa by scaring children into being good. He has horns, dark hair, and fangs. He noisily drags along chains and bells. He carries a bundle of birch sticks that he uses to strike bad children. Finally, he takes naughty children down to the underworld.
Origins of the Legend
The name Krampus comes from the German word krampen, which means claw. Krampus is half goat and half demon. In Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, the ruler of the realm of the dead. Hel is typically depicted as an older woman who is neither fully alive nor fully dead. While her face and body are those of a living woman, her legs are those of a corpse. Her face wears a permanent sour expression.
The Krampus legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition. In Germany, Christmas celebrations begin in early December. While St. Nicholas rewarded good children with tasty treats, Krampus beat children with his sticks and took them to his underworld lair. According to legend, Krampus arrives the night before Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated on December 6. That evening is known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. On the evening before Nikolaustag, German children leave a shoe or boot outside their doors. Good children can expect to find presents in their footwear the next morning, while bad children will find a rod.
Krampus is not the only European Christmas monster. In some areas of Germany, people tell stories about Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht. In France, there are legends about Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard. These legendary figures date back to pre-Christian celebrations of the date December 22, which is the longest night of the year.
Krampus Becomes Popular
“For most people, before the 1800s, Christmas was not a domestic quiet holiday,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the book The Battle for Christmas. “It was a holiday that was characterized by boisterous revelry. It was sort of like a combination of Halloween and New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras.”
These early Christmas celebrations featured costumed adults called mummers. These mummers went door to door demanding alcoholic drinks. They threatened to cause trouble for anyone who refused to fulfill their requests. This tradition continues today in the holiday of Halloween. Costumed children travel from door-to-door asking for treats in the form of candy. The threat of trouble if candy is not supplied is reflected in the familiar expression “trick or treat,” although people no longer intend to follow through on their threat.
Krampus’s popularity grew in the country of Austria in the late 1800s. Until the year 1890, the Austrian government produced all of that nation’s postcards. After the government allowed private businesses to manufacture postcards of their own, Krampus became a popular subject. Krampus became popular on Christmas cards as well. In the early part of the 20th century before World War I, German companies sold Krampus-themed Christmas cards. The cards contained messages such as Gruss vom Krampus (Greetings from Krampus) or Brav Stein (Be Good).
Both children and adults received Christmas cards featuring Krampus. Cards for children showed Krampus scaring boys and girls, beating them, or carrying them away in a pouch on his back. Krampus cards for adults tended to be less threatening and more funny. Some cards showed Krampus punishing adults, while others depicted him as a comic figure carrying women away.
The more energetic aspects of older Christmas celebrations continue today with Krampusnacht celebrations on December 5. In Austria and parts of Germany, adults still dress up as Krampus to scare children as they might have in the early 19th century. In Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, some adults participate in an event called a Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, where they drink alcohol and then run through the streets in frightening costumes. In the Austrian city of Graz, in 2013 one Krampuslauf attracted 35,000 people.
Matthew Souzis, who runs the website krampus.com, says, “I’ve always pitched Krampusnacht as a sort of cross between Halloween and Christmas.”
Krampus-related celebrations were banned for many years in Europe. The Catholic Church, as well as some governments, forbade them. However, recently Krampus seems to be making a comeback. In the United States, people throw Krampus parties. In Austria companies sell Krampus-themed candy, figurines, and collectible horns. These celebrations have more in common with older Christmas celebrations before the holiday focused more on children and gifts.
Is Krampus Too Scary?
Not everyone thinks the recent popularity of Krampus is a good thing. In Austria, some teachers say the Christmas monster should not visit schools because he is too frightening. In the country of Hungary, teaching assistant Klári Tölgyesi said that while she would give her own children rods from Krampus, she tried to make it less scary.
She explained, “I bought a branch, a virgacs, for them but I decorated it with sugar and nuts and apples and I told them ‘Yes, you were a little bit naughty and a little bit good, so Mikulás couldn’t decide what to give for you.’”
Tölgyesi said that when St. Mikulás, as St. Nicholas is known in Hungarian, visits schools each year, he is accompanied by his monstrous sidekick. However, students receive presents from both St. Mikulás and Krampus.
“We have just really, really good children in our school,” she said with a laugh.
See vintage Krampus postcards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Images and Sources
Krampus postcard photo: Auktionshaus Markus Weissenböck
Krampus postcard photo license: public domain