What is Krampus?
In Germany, Austria, and other Alpine cultures, Santa Nicholas has a scary sidekick: Krampus. This Christmas demon is responsible for punishing children who Saint Nick has put on his naughty list—and the punishments are worse than a lump of coal in your stocking!
Like many demons, Krampus borrows several features from goats. He has long horns that curl back on his head. His feet end in hooves instead of feet. His body is covered in shaggy fur, which can be white, black, or reddish-brown. He even has a long, pointed tongue like a goat.
Unlike a goat, Krampus also has claws and fangs. He walks on two legs, dressed in chains and bells that he shakes at people on the street. He also carries a bunch of birch rods or a horsehair whip and a large sack or basket. The birch rods and whip are used to beat naughty children, but the sack is reserved for the truly wicked. Krampus uses it to haul young evildoers to the underworld.
Krampus is merciless, yes. But evil? Not necessarily. Krampus follows the rules of justice. He only comes after children who misbehave, and while he does seem to enjoy punishing wicked children, he is never seen attacking innocent children.
In some ways, Krampus can be seen as an obedient slave. He wears chains, which symbolize his enslavement, and in many stories, he only appears when and where Saint Nicholas tells him to be.
Krampus has close ties to the kindly Saint Nicholas. In fact, many Christmas stories have Krampus and Saint Nicholas making their rounds and judging children together. If the child has been good, he will get treats from Saint Nicholas. But if he has been bad, he’ll get the switch from Krampus.
Similar characters exist in nearby countries.
Knecht Rupert is a large bearded man with bells sewn to his clothes and a bag of ashes and coal slung over his shoulder. He accompanies Saint Nicholas on his journeys around the world, distributing fruit and gingerbread to good children and giving lumps of coal to bad children.
Belsnickel is a merry looking man with a dark side. He gives fruits and cakes to good children, but he beats bad children with a whip.
It’s not hard to guess that Krampus is one of the many “pagan” symbols who have snuck into Christmas festivities, but the details of his backstory are unclear. Some people believe that Krampus represents the Horned God, a popular figure in witchcraft, and that his birch rods are a throwback to ancient, pagan initiation rituals. Others claim Krampus is the son of the Norse God, Hel.
When Christians replaced pagan winter festivals with Christmas, Krampus underwent a transformation. He was associated with the devil, and he was placed in a subservient position to Saint Nicholas—even forced to wear chains to show his inferiority.
But chaining Krampus up still wasn’t enough. In the 1920s, the Catholic Church and some political parties in Germany and Austria put an outright ban on Krampus. Celebrating this Christmas demon was not only unpopular, it was illegal!
But Krampus lived on in German and Austrian tradition, and by the 1960s, he was allowed to come back into the light. Now, he was embraced as a kitschy, folklore figure, and the public latched on to Krampus as a way to reconnect with their ancestors.
Eventually, the mounting frustration with the commercialization of Christmas created a gateway for Krampus to invade other cultures. In the United States, people who wanted to protest holiday spending and mandatory good cheer embraced characters like Scrooge, the Grinch, and Krampus, who also rebelled against Christmas norms.
Today, Krampus festivals are held all over the world on the evening of December 6, also known as Krampusnacht. Legend has it that this is the night Krampus goes after bad children. Accordingly, young men dress in fur suits and horned maskes and flock to the streets, snarling and shaking their chains at anyone who stops to watch the scary parade.
Krampus has also carved out a small place in horror literature, even inspiring a horror film called Krampus.