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.
Thing is, Santa isn’t the only one watching. Many people will have only become aware of Krampus through the latest Hollywood horror film, but for those in Alpine regions, he’s far more well known. While the Feast of St. Nicholas takes place on December 6, the evening before is Krampusnacht Eve, when he comes to town.
His fur, horns and cloven hooves make him sound awfully similar to another notorious figure. You need to let go of any Christian associations though because mythology is full of horned creatures who wait in the dark. As a fan of all things monstrous and ghoulish, I decided now was the best time to talk about Christmas’ dark side!
St Nicholas and Krampus
St Nicholas, later to be rebranded as Santa Claus, first appears in the 11th century. 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 the Norse god of the underworld. The church have tried to ban Krampus celebrations but he’s managed to cling on as the Anti Santa.
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 even haul them off to his lair! The legends do vary. Some versions carry bells, and others carry a sack to take away evil children. This latter story might be explained by raids on European coasts when locals were abducted into slavery.
Krampus in the 21st Century
Krampus even appears on greeting cards, and has done since the nineteenth century. 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 have been dressing up as various figures and animals to celebrate different seasons for centuries. It’s a bit like a Christmas version of Halloween. While most people reckon it’s a light and cheerful time of year, 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.
Krampus finally made his way into 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. Now he finally has his own film, which I can’t wait to see! You can watch the trailer here.