In the past few years, Krampus has outpaced Santa Claus in terms of popular Christmas lore. You have probably heard about Krampus, seen holiday cards with his image, or are looking forward to the new movie by director Mike Dougherty. But who is Krampus? Where did he come from?
The legend of Krampus is thought to stretch back before pre-Christian traditions (when he was just called “Wild Man”) and appears by name in Germanic folklore as early as the 1600s. His name comes from the German word for claw, krampen. The demonic counterpart to the benevolent St. Nicholas, Krampus is most often described as an exceedingly tall beastly figure, covered with wiry fur, big horns, cloven hooves, and a long, forked tongue. Like Santa, Krampus carries a sack, but instead of being filled with toys, it is filled with wooden switches, used to spank naughty children.
In many European towns, St. Nicholas’ Day (Nikolaustag) was celebrated on December 6th. The night before was Krampus Night (Krampusnacht). Krampus was said to mete out punishment to the kids on Santa’s naughty list (which basically makes Krampus Santa’s hitman). While the good kids would get treats, those deemed naughty would be whipped with a switch, then frequently kidnapped in a basket or cauldron and brought back to Krampus’ lair, where they were beaten until they repented.
In the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the legend of Krampus was “suppressed” by various authorities: the Catholic church didn’t like it because of his “raucous” demeanor and Pagan roots; and the various Fascist regimes in Austria during WWII deemed Krampus “a creation of the Social Democrats.” Even as recently as 2006, Austrian psychologists questioned whether Krampus was a healthy image for children.
One popular “event” for Krampus fans is the Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run. Drunk men would dress as Krampus and run through the town, dragging naughty children from their homes. A more modern, less terrifying version of the Krampus Run features people dressing as Krampus and parading through town, without the felonious implication of kidnapping. Some might dance or perform comical sketches. Krampus Runs have become popular in cities across the country, as well as in its homeland.
Krampus has seen unprecedented popularity in the last few years. In addition to the growing acceptance and affection for monsters and horror tales, some consider Krampus the “bah humbug” version of Santa Claus and embrace him because of his decidedly non-religious demeanor. Krampus graces ugly Christmas sweaters, toys, greeting cards, and all manner of merchandise. Who knows – maybe Starbucks will feature him on their holiday cups next year.