In every legend, there’s an element of truth. So what is the truth behind the anti-Santa, Krampus?
For the uninitiated, Krampus is the half-demon, half-goat companion of St Nicholas whose name derives from the German word Krampen, meaning ‘claw’. He bears horns, fur, fangs and a long tongue, and he carries chains, bells and a bundle of birch sticks. He’s become more famous in recent years after appearing in a bunch of horror movies, including 2015’s Krampus, starring Toni Collette (currently streaming on Netflix; I’ve watched it—it’s great).
Most of us are familiar with the idea of Santa leaving gifts for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad. But in Alpine tradition, naughty kids don’t get off so lightly. Each year, on December 5th, Krampus accompanies St Nicholas to deal out a more violent and terminal justice on the world’s children. While St Nicholas delivers gifts to the nice ones, Krampus beats the naughty ones with his birch sticks and, in some cases, eats them or drags them to Hell. On December 6th, St Nicholas’s feast day, children awaken to find their gifts or to nurse their injuries.
We know that Santa himself was based on a real figure: St Nicholas, an early Christian bishop from Turkey, whose reputation for secret gift-giving and putting coins in people’s shoes gave rise to the traditions we now associate with Santa. Therefore it’s reasonable to assume that Krampus might also be based on someone—or something—real.
As a matter of fact, he is. Krampus was born out of an ancient Alpine pagan tradition whereby men would dress up in animal costumes and run round their villages in an attempt to ‘scare away the winter’. Over time, these masked figures came to be known as Perchten and started looking like the furry, horned beasts that we recognise today as Krampus.
In time, a single Perchten was plucked from the herd and adopted into Christian traditions: Krampus. The frightening creature was an easy fit for the role of the anti-St Nick, a villain to St Nick’s hero. If St Nick’s job was to reward the good children, then there had to be someone who would punish the bad. We humans love our contrasts.
And you know how millions of parents will encourage their children to believe that Santa Claus is a real figure? And will entrench the belief by having Daddy or Gramps dress up in a red fat suit and beard? Well, Austrian parents used to do the same with Krampus. The neighbours would dress up in Krampus costumes and stalk the streets. They’d bundle into people’s houses and lash the naughty kids with sticks while St Nicholas read a list of their bad deeds and the parents watched. Even when the kids were old enough to know that St Nick and his monstrous accomplices were just men in costumes, the fear of being beaten by these petrifying masked figures remained. The experience was so traumatic that in the 1930s, the practice was banned in Austria.
There are, however, some who say that Krampus is long-misunderstood. He’s not actually the evil villain he’s made out to be. According to author Al Ridenour, Krampus doesn’t carry chains to be threatening but because he’s a slave, and St Nicholas is his master. And he doesn’t beat children because he’s a sadist, but because he has to, because St Nick can’t be bothered to get his hands dirty.
My self-published book The Christmas Monster could well have been influenced by the Krampus legend without my knowing. The book is about a creature called Atnas who sneaks down chimneys to leave toe-eating critters in children’s stockings at the behest of a Christmas-hating witch called Murmur. The idea stemmed from a different Santa legend, one which says that the jolly old elf was once a monster, till he changed his ways. It could be that this legend came from a blending of Krampus and St Nick into one person. Krampus literally became St Nick, swapping stick-beatings and cannibalism for much more merciful lumps of coal.
For me, there’s something perpetually awesome about the idea of a Christmas demon or monster, something that isn’t the sugar, spice and everything nice usually associated with the holiday. Many of us are as drawn to the dark side of Christmas as we are to the light, and why not? There’s a time and a place for Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually and Elf. But there’s a time and a place for Gremlins, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Die Hard, too.
Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals. 🙂