How the Krampus Christmas devil is stealing the holiday spotlight

Krampus christmas devil: Ho ho ho... Krampus is coming to town

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Meet the Krampus Christmas devil: Yuletide’s frightful folklore fiend

Ever heard of Krampus? A half-goat, half-demon creature from Central European folklore that brings a dash of the macabre to the cheer of Christmas. While Santa Claus is busy rewarding the good kids, Krampus is on the hunt for the naughty ones, ready to dish out some old-fashioned, frightful punishments.

It’s all part of a long-standing tradition — Krampusnacht — celebrated on December 5, where folks dress up as Krampus to give the little ones a playful scare. Krampus isn’t just a tale told in Europe, it has made appearances in modern shows like American Dad! and films such as Krampus.

Ever wonder how legends like Krampus find their way into our modern holiday festivities? Read on to learn more!

portrait of st nicholas and krampus christmas devil

Is Krampus real? The history of Krampus

This horned, anthropomorphic figure is known to accompany St. Nicholas during this season, but unlike the benevolent St. Nicholas, Krampus’s role is to scare and punish misbehaving children. The name Krampus itself has two possible origins — either from the German word ‘kramp’, orkrampen‘, meaning ‘claw’​​, or from Bavarian: krampn, meaning “dead”, or “rotten”.

Krampus folklore originates in the Central and Eastern Alpine regions of Europe, which comprise areas across several countries including Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria (in Germany), Slovenia, northern Croatia, and northeastern Italy. This area is rich in ancient traditions and customs that date back to pre-Christian times, with elements originating from a variety of cultures including Germanic, Gaulish (Gallo-Roman), Slavic (Carantanian), and Raetian cultures.

Traditionally, during the first two weeks of December, especially on the evening of December 5, young men would dress up as Krampus. They would roam the streets, frightening children and women with rusty chains, hammers, and bells as part of the celebration known as Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run.

The legend of Krampus has been a part of the folklore in Austria’s Alpine region for hundreds of years, intertwined with pagan celebrations before being amalgamated into Christian traditions​. It is believed to have originated from tales of house spirits such as kobolds or elves​​.

Things end up taking a political turn in the 20th century, after the 1932 election in Austria. The newly empowered Dollfuss regime, backed by the Fatherland Front and the Christian Social Party, prohibited the Krampus tradition. The fear surrounding Krampus extended into the 1950s when the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus Is an Evil Man,” concerned that run-ins with Krampus might be mentally scarring for children.

However, the closing decades of the century witnessed a revival of the Krampus festival, a trend that continues today. Nowadays, the tradition of Krampus is not only preserved but is experiencing a resurgence in various parts of Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This revival extends to Bavaria as well, where there’s a local artistic tradition of hand-carving wooden masks for the Krampus festivities.

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What does Krampus look like?

The appearance of Krampus is designed to instill fear and obedience in mischievous children during the festive season. Though possessing a humanoid form, Krampus boasts inhuman features that set it apart from mere mortals.

One of the most distinctive attributes of the Krampus Christmas devil is its horned head. The large, curved horns, reminiscent of a goat, contribute significantly to its menacing demeanor. Its body is often covered in dark, shaggy fur, akin to a goat’s coat. Further amplifying this fearsome appearance are fanged teeth and a long, pointed tongue that protrudes from its mouth. These features are often exaggerated in depictions, and serve as a visual cue of the terror that he is meant to embody.

Krampus’s ghastly appearance is not complete without its hoofed feet, another nod to its goat-like attributes. It is often shown wearing chains and bells, as well as wielding birch rods — or a whip. In some tales and images, he’s also shown carrying a sack or a basket on its back, ready to cart off misbehaving children to the underworld.

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The depiction of Krampus in early art and literature paints a picture of a menacing figure that strikes a contrasting note to the benevolent St. Nicholas. The visual representation of Krampus has found its way onto Krampuskarten, or greeting cards, dating back to the 1800s. These pieces of art range from macabre versions of Krampus to more whimsical ones, showcasing different interpretations of this folklore figure.

By the early 20th century, Krampus cards showcased not only its punitive side — disciplining children — but also featured it in more peculiar situations such as proposing to women or depicted as a large woman wielding birch sticks​.

The artworks from this period often depict Krampus (sometimes alongside St. Nicholas) during their visit to children on the evening of December 5, the night known for distributing rewards and punishments. In these depictions, the horned, anthropomorphic figure of Krampus brings a sense of foreboding, as opposed to St. Nicholas’ comforting presence​.

A collection of Krampus-themed art from Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century, mostly featured on privately-issued postal cards and Krampusnacht greeting cards, illustrates the infamous “Christmas Devil” as a major figure within various European countries’ yuletide celebrations​.

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Creepy Krampus drawing

Cultural significance

In the regions of Austria and Germany, the celebration of “St. Nicholaus” on December 6th is complemented by the Krampuslauf the night before. Krampus is conceived as Saint Nicholas’s helper, albeit a terrifying one.

On the evening of December 5th, often referred to as ‘Krampus Night’ or ‘Krampusnacht’, Krampus visits homes and businesses, sometimes accompanied by Saint Nicholas. This duo represents a balance of good and fear, with Krampus being the one who scares the misbehaving children as a form of discipline, while Saint Nicholas rewards the well-behaved ones​.

The tradition of Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, is a tradition believed to be 500 years old, and it has been making a comeback in Germany. This event sees individuals dressed as Krampus, parading through the streets and engaging with the public in a mock chase, symbolizing the chasing away of winter’s ghosts. It’s a sight to behold, with the devilish figures of Krampus creating a thrilling atmosphere amidst the otherwise peaceful Christmas market settings.

In Munich, for instance, the Krampus Run is an integral part of the Christkindlmarkt, where Krampus creatures roam around, instilling fear into the crowd rather than spreading Christmas cheer.

As you stroll around the square soaking in the Christmas market atmosphere, the sudden appearance of Krampus figures can be a jarring experience. The tranquility of the market is interrupted by the loud commotion of the Krampus Run, with evil-looking creatures roaming around​​. You can expect to see upwards of 400 devilish creatures running amok, creating a scene unlike any other.

Across many parts of Europe, the tradition of having a frightening counterpart to the benevolent St. Nicholas is common, with each region having its own unique interpretation of such a figure. Krampus is Austria and Germany’s contribution to this tradition, but it’s not the only one. In other parts of Germany and some Germanic regions, there are figures like Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht, who, like Krampus, dole out punishments to naughty children during the Christmas season​.

Belsnickle is a fur-clad figure from southwestern Germany, known to have a rather ragged and disheveled appearance. Unlike the horned and fearsome Krampus who exists solely to punish, Belsnickle is said to carry treats for well-behaved children.

Knecht Ruprecht, another companion of St. Nicholas from German folklore, is depicted as a man with a long beard, dressed in fur or covered in pea-straw. He is typically seen carrying a sack full of ashes to punish the disobedient — but also sometimes bearing gifts for the good ones.

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Modern-day portrayal and influences of the Krampus Christmas devil

The portrayal of Krampus in films and television shows, particularly in North America, has seen a noticeable surge, shedding light onto an otherwise obscure part of European folklore.

A string of Krampus-centered films emerged in the 2010s when American filmmakers began to see the potential in adapting the Christmas horror theme. This newfound interest isn’t confined to the screen — it has spilled over into real life, with Krampus-themed events becoming part of the holiday festivities in various parts of North America.

The menacing figure of Krampus has taken center stage in several low-budget or direct-to-video titles, notably Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013). The plot follows a police officer searching for his childhood kidnapper, who he eventually realizes could be Krampus, the creature of ancient yuletide folklore​​.

Another film, Krampus: The Reckoning (2015), explores a story where a strange child has Krampus as her not-so-imaginary friend, showcasing the dark companion of St. Nicholas​​. Her doll turns out to be a link to Krampus, who becomes her avenging angel of sorts, taking on those who have wronged her.

Perhaps the most notable is Krampus by Universal Pictures, where a dysfunctional family’s lack of holiday spirit summons Krampus, the ancient demonic force of Christmas. Along with its sinister helpers, Krampus punishes them for their cynicism, turning their Christmas break into a nightmarish fight for survival.

On television, the figure of Krampus has featured in several shows. In American Dad!‘s Krampus is a recurring character​. In Grimm, an episode titled “Twelve Days of Krampus” sees the detectives investigating disappearances linked to an evil Santa, representing the Krampus lore​. The character even made its way to The Colbert Report in a lighter, comedic portrayal​.

The Krampus Christmas devil in the US

These portrayals on screen have somewhat aided in the resurgence of Krampus in North American culture, especially during the holiday season. Events like Krampusnacht walks and Krampus runs are now being celebrated in various cities across the US on December 5th, where participants dressed as Krampus parade through the streets, adding a dark, thrilling flavor to the otherwise cheerful holiday season​.

In Milwaukee, the Krampusnacht event is a significant highlight, with participants seeking to capture the essence of Santa’s unholy enforcer​​.

In New York City, the Blood Manor Scare Factory transforms into a terrifying playground for Krampus, where participants can run through the haunted house chased by demonic figures, including Krampus​​.

This increasing popularity underscores a broader acceptance and fascination with the darker, more thrilling aspects of folklore amidst the traditional holiday cheer. It’s not just a fleeting interest but a growing tradition that challenges the typical narratives surrounding Christmas, engaging audiences both on screen and on the streets in a uniquely thrilling experience.

Controversies and critiques: Is Krampus good or bad for kids?

The cultural reception of a Krampus Christmas devil varies significantly, reflecting the many ways in which different societies interact with folklore and tradition. While the figure of Krampus can be terrifying, especially to children, it holds a unique place in the cultures where it’s celebrated, often as a means to uphold social and moral orders.

The tradition has evolved over centuries, initially serving as a broader social deterrent against greed and indecency among adults in pagan societies. Over time, the focus shifted towards children, probably as a means to instill a sense of right and wrong from a young age​.

Krampus has been perceived as a complex figure — a bringer of punishment yet a guardian of tradition, playing a significant role in keeping children in line​​. This dual nature of Krampus — both terrifying and traditional — reflects the underlying intention of imparting moral lessons, albeit in a manner that may be considered harsh.

With its demonic goat-like appearance, Krampus is often seen as the polar opposite of the jolly and benevolent Santa Claus. It chases people around, especially targeting children, with a switch in hand, ready to punish the naughty ones. This can be particularly frightening for children, creating a stark contrast to the more comforting traditions​​. In Austria, for instance, while children in other parts of the world look forward to St. Nick’s visit, Austrian children might be running for their lives fearing the wrath of Krampus​​.

The debate on whether the scarier aspects of Krampus are suitable for children continues, especially as the tradition finds its way to new shores. In some celebrations, Krampus figures are known to create a scene and may even turn their whips on parents, though rarely on children, before St. Nicholas intervenes, showcasing a theatrical yet potentially terrifying enactment of moral enforcement​.

As Krampus becomes more familiar to audiences outside Central Europe, especially in the United States, discussions around the appropriateness of its scarier aspects, particularly concerning children, are likely to continue.

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Have any cool stories about celebrating Krampusnacht, or insights regarding Krampus folklore? Drop them in the comments below — we’re all ears! 👻

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