Long before good old Santa Claus got the job of finding out who was naughty or nice there was a team who handled that duty. Precursor to Santa, St. Nicholas headed out on the eve of his name day with his dark buddy, Krampus, in tow. In the night they would visit families. St. Nick rewarded the good kids with presents.
What happened to the kids who had been bad was up to Krampus, a demonic, hairy, horned beast with a long, pointed tongue, who dragged chains and carried birch branches for whipping. Just the sight of him may have been enough to scare a child into good behavior, but it didn’t stop there. A mildly bad child might get away with a swatting. A very bad child could get tied into the Krampus’ bundle and taken to his lair, never to be seen again.
The figure of Krampus comes out of Alpine folklore and may hark back to pre-Christian times. Krampus is often shown with one cloven hoof, like the pagan earth spirits, and one human foot. The old German word for claw, Krampen, is the source for Krampus name. He does not necessarily sport claws, but his fangs are very sharp.
Back in the earliest years of Krampus, in those days of long ago when fairy tales were truly terrifying and folk tales were meant to scare the beejeebers out of people, St. Nick’s helper was depicted as capable of horrifying deeds. Ripping out pigtails, shackling youngsters, leading children off a cliff, drowning them, and throwing them into a pit of fire are just a few examples of Krampus’s antics.
St. Nicholas became popular in Germany during the eleventh century. His pairing with his alter-ego was outlawed during the time of the Inquisition (approximately 1100 to 1850) when impersonating a devil was punishable by death, although the tradition continued in remote mountain towns. Krampus made a comeback in the seventeenth century.
Not surprisingly, the chilling figure of Krampus was subject to suppression during other periods in history as well. The Catholic Church and World War II fascists both forbade celebrations including Krampus in the 30’s and 40’s. In the mid-1950’s there was an outcry from educators who feared that children would be permanently scarred by exposure to the heinous beast.
Still, the old devil has his charm. Krampusnacht, the night of Krampus, continues to be celebrated in many parts of Europe. On the evening of December 5, St. Nicholas Day Eve, young men dress up as the Krampus and roam the streets frightening children in Germany, Austria, Romania, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia. “In some towns, kids are made to run a Krampus-gauntlet, dodging swats from tree branches,” according to Der Spiegel.
It is reported that a few Krampus celebrations are beginning to take place in the United States, especially in the Northeast areas with high German populations. (Historically, it doesn’t get much more German than Milwaukee. Are we ready?)
Many cities hold runs or Krampuslaufen. Celebrants dressed as Krampus form parades that waft through crowded streets, drinking the traditional schnapps, an intoxicating fruit brandy, offered to them by onlookers hoping to avoid punishment. In some places zesty drinking has surpassed the joy of scaring children. (For a look at a Krampuslauf with a plethora of variations on Krampus, Google “Krampuslauf Graz 2010” YouTube)
So. Tired of misbehaving children? You could do as the Styrians do. Receive your ruten bundle (bundle of rods) from Krampus, paint the twigs gold and display them year-round in the house as a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. Or buy a pack of Krampus grusskarten (Krampus greeting cards) to clarify the workings of St. Nicholas’ helper. Share the horrifying images with your kids and, then, remind them that Krampus only punishes those who misbehave.
Krampus Gruss! To you and yours!
Krampus portrait by Kayla Lee Brooks.