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!
What does Krampus have to do with Christmas?
St Nicholas, later to be rebranded as Santa Claus, first appears in the 11th century.
I don’t know about you, but I always thought there was something a bit ‘off’ about Santa Claus. He’ll leave you coal if you’ve been bad? How does he know? Is he keeping all the children of the world under constant surveillance? Wow, the admin must be a nightmare.
Krampus only joins the fun in later centuries but it’s probable that he’s a pre-Christian figure. Smithsonian.com reckon he’s the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld.
The church has tried to ban Krampusnacht celebrations but he’s managed to cling on as the ‘Anti Santa’.
His fur, horns and cloven hooves make him sound awfully similar to another notorious figure. But you need to let go of any Christian associations. Mythology is full of ancient horned creatures who wait in the dark. Nearly all of them have literally nothing to do with the Devil.
Legend has it that St Nicholas and Krampus do the rounds together. St Nicholas leaves candy for good children and twigs for the bad ones. 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.
The legends do vary.
In some versions 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.
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.
While Krampus might be an older figure than St Nicholas, he 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.
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!
Traditions like this have a long history. Also known as mummery, people dress 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!
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