Most people will have heard of Santa Claus. But it wasn’t really until 2015 that his dark twin Krampus finally poked his horned head into the limelight.
Having your own Hollywood movie will do that to your media profile.
But Krampus has been well known in Alpine regions for centuries. While the Feast of St. Nicholas takes place on December 6, the evening before is Krampusnacht, when he comes to town.
But who is he and what’s his deal? Let’s find out! Hit ‘play’ below to listen to the podcast episode or keep reading!
What does Krampus have to do with Christmas?
Smithsonian.com reckon he’s the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld. Al Ridenour refutes this Nordic connection, claiming it was invented by Brom in Krampus the Yule Lord (2016: 10). For him, Krampus is a purely Austrian figure.
Many articles tout Krampus’ apparently pre-Christian origins. But according to Ridenour, St Nicholas always had a dark helper. A previous incarnation, Knecht Ruprecht, was the saint’s servant (2016: 15). Unlike Santa Claus, St Nicholas always had an air of judgement about him.
By the 17th century, St Nicholas had hired Krampus. Ridenour makes the point that we should call him the Krampus, because his name refers to a group of creatures, not a singular being (2016: 14).
Legend has it that St Nicholas and Krampus do the Christmas rounds together. St Nicholas leaves candy for good children and twigs for the bad ones. This pre-Santa Claus figure didn’t automatically dispense presents for the sake of it. Children had to earn gifts.
Krampus is on hand to punish the extra naughty ones. He might beat them with branches or haul them off to his lair. According to National Geographic, he takes naughty children to the underworld.
Krampus’ fur, horns and cloven hooves make him sound awfully similar to another notorious figure. But mythology is full of ancient horned creatures who wait in the dark. Nearly all of them have literally nothing to do with the Devil. Ridenour also points out that our depictions of Krampus come from postcards of him, known as krampuskarten. These were often drawn by artists many miles from the celebrations. With no source imagery, they drew from traditional images of the Devil or Pan (2016: 14).
In some versions of the legends, he carries bells. In others, he carries a sack to take away evil children. This latter story might be explained by raids on European coasts when locals were abducted into slavery.
The church has tried to ban Krampusnacht celebrations but he’s managed to cling on as the ‘Anti Santa’.
Why do we need a ‘dark Santa’?
Most people see Christmas as a light and cheerful time of year. But it’s still the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere.
In centuries past, people would be worried about having enough food to see them through the dark nights. It’s hardly surprising that a positive figure like St Nicholas would need a dark and threatening opposite.
For Ridenour, Krampus “seems to express the requisite countercultural contempt for the Coca-Cola guzzling, bloated patriarch of all that is consumerist and parental” (2016: 2). Ridenour also tries to claim Krampus as an icon of the rebellion, the last contemptuous symbol of the punk generation before they settle down to have families.
I disagree with Ridenour’s attempts to link the resurgence of Krampus with the American slasher film. But I do think he has a point when he highlights the Victorian fascination with all things ghostly at Christmas (2016: 3). You’re more likely to see dangerous things in the dark.
Krampus acts as a natural counterbalance. For everything good and pure, there is something dark and threatening.
Other countries have their own ‘dark’ Santa, such as Hans Trapp in France and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. But it’s not just an anti-Santa that we have to worry about.
Al Ridenour links Krampus with the mumming traditions of Europe. Here, people dressed up to enact “often-slapstick folk plays”, with “their common theme of death and resurrection” (2016: 4). The Welsh Mari Lwyd fits into this tradition, which is a horse skull on a pole, its operator obscured by a sheet.
Groups carried the horse around their local area. They’d knock on doors and sing songs for the householder to try and be invited in. The practice declined in the mid 20th century, though new versions revived it in later decades.
The tradition of mummers’ plays relates to Christmas, Easter, and occasionally Halloween. You’ll often find references to mummers in texts dating back to the Middle Ages. But no one really knows what the medieval mummers’ plays looked like as no scripts survive. Their current form dates to the mid-18th century. The players wear masks or hats to hide their face. The most common plot is a fight between two characters that leads to the death of one combatant. A doctor arrives who revives the fallen character.
Mummering is a version of mummers’ plays, involving house-visiting at Christmas. It’s popular in Newfoundland, introduced by English and Irish settlers. People visit houses in their community while in disguise, and the homeowners have to guess who they are. The players can remove their masks if their identity is guessed. The groups enjoy food and drink in the houses before they move on.
Ridenour also notes the Christmas figure of the Belsnickel, a threatening creature introduced to rural Pennsylvania in the 1800s by German immigrants (2016: 5). His tradition lasted until the 1930s, and he dressed in ragged furs. Brandishing a whip, the Belsnickel chased adults and children alike. He bears a lot of similarities to Krampus
Krampus in the 21st Century
Krampus even appears on modern greeting cards and has done since the 19th century. National Geographic points out that the Krampus ‘industry’ started in 1890.
At Christmas markets, Krampus becomes more fun than scary, mostly for the benefit of tourists. On Krampusnacht, folk in the Alpine regions celebrate by dressing their men in fur and masks.
They rattle chains and bound through the streets as part of Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). In Lienz, town officials even educated newcomers from Syria and Afghanistan so they’d know what was going on.
It’s a good move – if you didn’t know about Krampusnacht, it would be bewildering, if not terrifying, to experience!
Mumming traditions like this have a long history. As with the mari lwyd, people dressed up as various figures and animals to celebrate different seasons for centuries.
The actors involve re-enact key stories (such as the battle between the Oak and Holly Kings), or interact with the general public.
Modern Krampusnacht celebrations seem to have tipped into an excuse for mixing alcohol and fancy dress.
Krampus finally made his way into wider popular culture in 2004 when he popped up in a Christmas special of The Venture Brothers. Since then, he’s also been in Supernatural, Grimm and American Dad. In 2015, he got his own film, which I reviewed here.
But despite his recent commercialisation, Krampus still lurks in the shadows. He still knows if you’ve been nice…or naughty.
Question is…is he going to pay you a visit this year?
Had you heard of Krampus before? Do you celebrate Krampusnacht? Let me know in the comments!
Ridenour, Al (2016), The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.
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