‘Tis the season, everyone! That means several things: that malls and stores are nightmares to navigate, that your neighbor who always has the tackiest home decorations you’ve ever seen has truly outdone himself this year to the point where you can’t fall asleep with your curtains open, and that the holiday-themed movies flood the theaters. This year, there’s a particularly fun specimen, Krampus. It’s a silly horror movie about, essentially, Santa Claus’s evil twin. In honor of this movie, I thought that it might be fun to look a little bit into the actual history of the Krampus legend.
The myth of the Krampus is quite old; while we don’t know from precisely where and when it came, some anthropologists and folklorists have theorized that it pre-dates any Christian tradition in the Alpine-Bavarian region of Europe (this includes parts of modern-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and even a small piece of northern Italy, though the myth has grown well beyond those borders). The folklore traditions of Central and Northern Europe are rich, taking elements from ancient Gaulish, Slavic, Norse, and Raetian cultures.1 The beast’s name, Krampus, is derived from the Old High German word for “claw,” but he is also often considered to be the Norse god Loki’s grandson.
The easiest and fastest way to describe Krampus is genuinely, “an evil Santa Claus.” Historically one of ol’ Saint Nick’s companions, Krampus punishes the children who have been naughty. He beats them, eats them, or steals them away and takes them to Hell. If this all seems a bit dark to be associated with our culture’s jolly Santa Claus, please remember that the story of Saint Nicholas is very old as well, and has changed a great deal over the years. Saint Nicholas was a historic 4th century Turkish Christian saint who became synonymous with Father Christmas in the Middle Ages and only became the familiar red-and-white-suited fat man with a beard and a twinkle in his eye between 100 and 150 years ago.2
An Austrian greeting card, depicting Saint Nicholas and Krampus together.
The depiction of Krampus himself has, over time, come to strongly resemble what we would immediately recognize as the Christian devil. A large, imposing beast, Krampus is always drawn as hairy, with a long, pointed tongue, a serpentine tail, and the horns and hooves of a goat. He carries chains, sometimes hung with bells, and bundles of sticks with which he likes to thrash children.
A 1900s greeting card: "Greetings from Krampus!" Notice how, interestingly, one of his feet is clawed and the other is cloven.
In several European countries, Krampus traditionally shows up the night of December 5th, also known as Krampusnacht, in order to do his nasty work; these days, people dressed as Krampus, usually fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, run through the streets in what’s called a Krampuslauf.
Participants at a modern-day Krampuslauf.
So there you have it. An ancient, terrifying legend has become just another excuse to get drunk and run around in a costume. It’s really a testament to mankind’s enduring ability to turn anything into a party.
1 Haven’t heard of the Raetians before today? Don’t worry, neither had I, actually. The Raetians were a confederation of tribes in the Alpine region during the late Roman Republic/early Roman Empire eras who were eventually subjugated to the Romans about 2000 years ago. It’s theorized that they derived, in part, from the Etruscans, who, funnily enough, have very recently been confirmed by DNA tests as having originally come from what is now Turkey. Anyway, moving along.
2 Urban legend states that our current conception of Santa Claus was invented by a 1930s Coca-Cola ad campaign. While the campaign did serve to popularize that particular image, Santa had already taken current form at least 30 years prior.