It’s over. Christmas is over and here we are in the strange between time before New Year’s Eve: a haze of hang overs, left overs, and time disorientation, complete with both the reflection of the previous year and the apprehension of the coming one. So there’s no better moment to meditate on kindly Saint Nick’s darker best bud, everyone’s favorite Christmas bad boy, Krampus! This pagan demonic goat bro is slowly (finally) becoming a new tradition in the increasingly jaded United States. We know the terrible movie, and we know a little about this character, but who really is this horned napper of bad children, the rock and roll Santa Claus himself?
The story of Krampus originated in Austria and the Alpine region of Europe. Krampus' name has its root in the German krampen, or claw. He is known as the son of Hel in Norse mythology, and appears somewhat similar to common depictions of Satan: a goat-like beard, long horns, a long tongue, sharp teeth, and a hulking stance.
Krampus is sort of the opposite of our Santa Claus. Similar to the old tradition of putting coal in the stockings of bad children, which for the most part disappeared in the US, Krampus came to the homes of kids that had failed the nice list, and ended up on the naughty one.
“The Krampus is the yin to St. Nick’s yang,” Jeremy Seghers, organizer of a Krampus festival that was held in Florida in 2015, told Smithsonian.com. “You have the saint, you have the devil. 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.” Yeah, we get that.
On the evening of December 5th, known as Krampusnacht, German children leave a shoe outside their home, and Saint Nick, like Santa Claus, tackles the task of delivering presents and candy to the good children, and a rod or birch twigs to the bad ones. Krampus? Well, he focuses on something a little more extreme: he beats the naughty kids with birch twigs, or worse, kidnaps them into his sack and drags them down into the underworld to either beat them more, torture them, or eat them entirely, often with help from his band of evil elves.
Krampus was a story used to scare children into behaving the way society demanded, not unlike Santa Claus. However, Santa Claus is a reward-based system, and Krampus, punishment. The Krampus Run, a race in which one person dressed as Krampus and the others attempted to outrun him, was popular with adults, tradition holding that the participants should be drunk, tempting Krampus to catch them.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church didn’t feel too warmly about the demonic Norse pagan monster, nor the drunken revelry, and attempted to ban Krampus Night. And then in 1934, Austria’s Christian Social Party (fascists) attempted to do the same thing. However, the beast could not be contained, and Krampus continues to reign in popularity in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.
Modern celebrations in Europe
Many cities in Europe celebrate Krampus festivals to this day, in fact, they are among the most popular events of the year. Always a nighttime event, the Krampus Run is now more like a parade in which participants dress in honor of Krampus with horns, fur, whips, torches, devilish masks, red contacts, hooves, and fangs. There is a carnival-like atmosphere with people doing tricks like juggling fire, and those in the parade attempt to frighten onlookers. In the Tyrol area of Austria, the size of these parades is said to rival Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
However, it’s safe to say that the Krampus festivals are little more hardcore than Mardi Gras, with tourists sometimes feeling the need to flee the marchers who seek victims to scare, sometimes whipping them with branches, leaving welts and bruises on their legs. Here is a description from a tourist who got caught up in the celebrations in Salzburg, Austria:
“The narrow streets in the Old City section of Salzburg were packed with pedestrians as the Krampusse stomped through. Many people were caught unaware and reacted with terror. Some would flee and try to seek refuge in a shop or restaurant, only to be pursued by a determined Krampus. With so many easy targets, we again managed to escape largely unharmed. At times we were chased, jostled and struck, but compared with the brutality we witnessed, it was obvious we had been spared the full brunt of what Krampus could muster.”
US embraces Krampus Night
Krampus festivals are beginning to catch on in the United States as well, with cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadephia, Orlando, and Washington DC, getting into the anti-Christmas spirit. These festivals are held in the beginning of December, and mark a fun way to kick off a month of sickly sweet Christmas music and decorations. Some are parades, and some are parties
Check out some videos of Krampus celebrations in the United States here.
So next year, why not get involved with your local Krampus festival? Us creeps need to take this thing to the next level. "If everything is sweet and beautiful and lovely and the most wonderful time of the year, some people, like me, start to get a little nauseated, want a little salt to go with the sugar," Philly resident and Krampus festival participant Janet Finegar told NPR. "I think there [are] a lot of people out there who enjoy the idea of having a little salt."