Half-goat, half-demon, all naughty - this is the centuries-old legend of Krampus. He is literally the Christmas Devil, the opposite of Santa. He is horrifying, vicious, and very, very naughty.
The European practice of mummery during the winter solstice season can be traced back tens of thousands of years. Villagers across the continent dress up as animals, wild-men and mythic figures to parade and perform humorous plays. Among the most common figures in these folk rituals were Old Man Winter and the horned Goat-Man — archetypes now found in the forms of Saint Nick/Santa Claus, and the Devil (‘Old Nick’), also known as Krampus.
Wielding sharp long horns with a shaggy pelt and fangs, the anti-St. Nicholas comes lashing about with a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kids down to the underworld.
The historic origins to this “Christmas Devil”, Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. The legendary beast also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. Krampus was created as an evil counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, would swat “wicked” children and take them away to his lair.
According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 also happens to be Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (bad behavior).
A more modern take on the tradition in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic involves drunken men dressed as devils, who take over the streets for a Krampuslauf—a Krampus Run of sorts, when people are chased through the streets by the “devils.”
Krampus’ frightening presence was suppressed for many years—the Catholic Church forbade the raucous celebrations, and fascists in World War II Europe found Krampus despicable because it was considered a creation of the Social Democrats.
But Krampus is making a comeback - a big one. In the United States people are buying into the trend with Krampus parties, particularly in Los Angeles with Krampusfest 2013 debuting the city’s first large Krampus festival. For its part, Austria is attempting to commercialize the harsh persona of Krampus by selling chocolates, figurines, and collectible horns. If the Krampus tradition continues to grow, we’ll have even more to celebrate during the holiday season.