Christmas is a time of good cheer and religious celebration. It’s also a time especially loved by children, who keenly anticipate a visit from Santa Claus. But in Austria and other central European countries, there’s a much more sinister tradition. In fact, it’s thought to date back centuries to a pre-Christian, pagan era.
Most young children in the West are taught that good behavior means a visit from Santa, the jovial herald of lots of lovely presents. But Austrian kids have someone other than Santa to keep happy – the dreaded Krampus. Essentially, he’s a kind of evil Santa side-kick. And according to legend, his bite can be just as bad as his bark.
In Austria, Krampus comes the day before Saint Nicholas’ Day, when the Saint (a.k.a. Santa Claus) distributes Christmas gifts on December 6. And if you’ve been a naughty child, it’s a visit you’ll be looking forward to with nothing other than terror. After all, Krampus is half-beast, half-demon, and the treats he has in store are anything but pleasant.
The old legend goes that the grotesque Krampus, whose appearance is enough to scare the living daylights out of you, comes along with his birch branches. And if you’ve been naughty, he’ll beat you with them. But it gets worse.
Especially unruly children will be stuffed into the sack or basket that Krampus carries on his back. Then, Krampus will spirit the kids away from their homes to some horrible location. There, he’ll drown them – and sometimes even eat them. In another variation of the legend, Krampus drags misbehaved children down to Hell.
According to tradition, Krampus has the nether parts and horns of a goat and the upper half of an especially ugly demon. His teeth are fang-like, his claws are sharp and his cloven hooves complete the diabolical appearance. Frequently, Krampus is portrayed with an elongated tongue lolling out of his ghastly mouth.
As well as his birch branches – which are sometimes replaced by a whip – Krampus carries lengths of chain and bells. Along with his fearful image, the noise of the clanking chain links and ringing bells creates a nightmarish sensory effect. In fact, the terrible sound of the approaching Krampus strikes fear into the heart of any naughty child.
But where does this Krampus legend come from? The origin of his name is simple enough: the German word for claw is “krampen.” And claws are traditionally one of the beast’s defining characteristics. Other theories, though, state that Krampus has roots in the pre-Christian pagan traditions of Europe.
Indeed, some folkloric traditions say that Krampus was the spawn of Hel, a character from Nordic legend. And Hel, who welcomes the newly-dead into the inferno over which she presides, is just as scary as her offspring. But Norse resonances aside, Krampus also bears more than a passing resemblance to beasts from Greek mythology, such as satyrs and fauns.
Anthropologist John J. Honigmann studied the Krampus legend in the Austrian village of Irdning. Writing in an essay entitled “The Masked Face,” he claimed, “The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. [Austrians] believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.”
So, people have fretted over Krampus as a cultural icon for nearly a thousand years. In fact, as early as the 12th century, the Catholic Church made efforts to erase the Krampus myth. This was essentially because religious authorities saw both his appearance and supposed habits as rather too close to those of the Devil.
And the authorities’ desire to see off the evil Krampus has continued throughout the centuries. In fact, Austrian right-wing authorities hated Krampus so much that they tried to ban him in the 1930s. Perhaps they found this disturbing figure just a bit too anarchic for their tastes?
The Austrian government made further efforts to suppress the Krampus phenomenon in the 1950s with an official pamphlet. Its uncompromising message? “Krampus Is An Evil Man.” But these attempts at rooting out the legend had little success.
For instance, as recently as 2006, Austrian psychiatrist Max Friedrich bemoaned the fact that the Krampus tradition had continued in many places. He told Reuters, “The Krampus image is connected with aggression, and in a world that is anyway full of aggression, we shouldn’t add figures standing for violence… and hell.”
Back in the 19th century, though, the Krampus myth was still going strong, and Austrians had started to exchange Christmas cards bearing the motif, “Greetings from the Krampus.” The cards continued the idea of Krampus as a scary beast that preyed on children. However, some also had an overtly titillating edge, with Krampus depicted as a mischievous womanizer.
So what keeps this Krampus character so alive in the popular mind? Jeremy Seghers, who organizes a contemporary Krampus festival in Florida, outlined his theory to the Smithsonian. He said, “It taps into a subconscious macabre desire that a lot of people have that is the opposite of the saccharine Christmas a lot of us grew up with.”
Furthermore, Krampus is still going strong in Austria and other countries, such as Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In fact, the modern interpretation of the myth takes the shape of a booze-fuelled “Krampus Run.” In these raucous celebrations, masked men in various stages of intoxication rampage through the streets dressed in Krampus costumes.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary power of the Krampus myth is now taking root in the U.S. Indeed, since the start of this century, the Krampus legend seems to have grown in popularity. It even went mainstream with the release of a Hollywood movie in 2015, the comedy horror Krampus.
Additionally, Krampus has also appeared in an episode of American Dad. Yes, “Minstrel Krampus” dealt with growing cynicism about Christmas. Perhaps some Americans have had enough of a Christmas over-burdened with expensive gifts and eating to excess?
But in a supreme irony, some Austrians are now complaining that the Krampus tradition is falling victim to excessive commercial exploitation. Chocolate Santas are familiar enough, but now you can also bite the head of a chocolate Krampus – and there’s even a Krampus beer. In light of this, it’s hard not to get depressed with the idea that evil Krampus has become just another sanitized Christmas tradition.