Ah, Christmas. That beautiful time of the year where families get together, teenagers host parties they shouldn’t host, and kids get presents. Well, good kids get presents. Naughty kids get coal – unless they live in Krampus territory, then they get a whipping. An old-school birch rod whipping.
You thought Santa Claus was the one to hand out the bad news? That’s what right-hand men are for! Michael Corleone has Al Neri, Mr. Burns has Smithers, and good old Santa has Krampus. Birch rod and all. Coal doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
That’s who (or what) we will talk about today. That horned, devil-looking creature who haunts bad kids throughout December. That’s not his only job, though. He is also featured in holiday cards and a couple of movies too.
Who is Krampus?
In Alpine folklore (that is, German stories about weird stuff), it is believed Krampus comes out during December to punish ill-behaved kids, right before Santa comes out with the good stuff for those who did well in school.
That doesn’t mean our demonic friend is Santa’s enemy, though. Not at all! He is Santa’s helper. Imagine if that white-bearded old man had to do all by himself. It’d be impossible. That’s why he has Krampus to deal with the bad stuff. We don’t know if he’s hired help or if he lost a bet a few centuries ago, though.
There’s not much we know other than his December gig. Historians claim Krampus comes from pre-Christian traditions, an old God who found himself without a job when people in the Alps started switching religions.
Apparently, Krampus realized team Witch was going to lose. Not in a 1-0 kind of loss, but more of a “we’ll burn you all” kind of loss, so that change is a plausible explanation. We have no proof and can only speculate, though.
What does it look like?
Several people describe this demon differently. He is usually described as a long creature, with hairs all over his body, horns on top of his head, and claws on his hand. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he is Spring-heeled Jack – but I’m pretty sure ol Goat legs can’t jump that high.
Other people claim he has hooves and a long tongue, like a goat. That’s an easy way to picture it: a goat-shaped man. But instead of a man, he’s a pre-Christian deity now believed to be a demon at the service of Saint Nicholas. It’s almost the same thing!
Krampus’s attire is something of a touchy subject. He is often depicted with no clothes. Sometimes, he has ragged clothes all over his body, like Kanye West without the Yeezys. He also wears chains; not the Run-DMC kind but the chained-to-something kind, the real ones.
Let’s picture it together: A goat-shaped man wearing ragged clothes and chains around his neck. What are we forgetting? That’s right, the birch rod he uses to whip kids! Classic Krampus.
When did this story originate?
As you know, Krampus has an unclear origin story. We do know he started to gain notoriety sometime during the 11th century when Saint Nicholas became a popular figure among Europeans.
Krampus wasn’t Saint Nicholas’s friend at first, but he was featured as a demon who roamed the streets during November and December.
As years passed, Krampus became a more and more well-loved figure.
By the time the 17th century rolled out, Krampus was a part of Christian traditions in northern Europe. This horned creature went through it all, though. Several depictions, personality changes, and a few jobs here and there. But nothing compared to what happened to him during the 20th century.
The persecution of Krampus during the 20th century
During the early 1930s, the Fascist party in Austria decided to outlaw Krampus, claiming it was an evil influence on the country. One might say there were bigger problems in Austria at that time, like Fascism, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Twenty years later, during the 1950s, a similar group of people reinforced this anti-Krampus sentiment. They used their government positions to try to stop Krampus from appearing during holiday parties and celebrations. Little by little, Krampus began to disappear from the public eye.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for Krampus!
There has been a Krampus-revival of sorts after the 21st century. People are starting, once again, to wear Krampus masks and send cards featuring this handsome creature in them.
Sometimes people take it too far, like that one time a couple of drunken Austrians caused trouble while wearing Krampus masks. That wasn’t Krampus, though!
Does it only come out to play during Christmas?
Technically, Krampus does not appear during Christmas. He is out and about during December 5th, one day before Saint Nicholas makes an appearance during his feasts. That’s okay though, Krampus still gives whipping to ill-behaved kids, Christmas or not.
Other than that, there are a couple of holidays that involve the horned demon. Most of them are around the same date, during December. For example, there a couple of Pagan traditions that slowly mixed with Christian culture are still celebrated today in the Alps.
You also have Krampuslauf, which is when people offer Krampus distilled drinks during the winter solstice. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing but an excuse people have to get drunk wearing a mask, though.
Krampus, the movie star
You can probably guess working one month per year isn’t enough to pay the bills. After the persecution during the 20th century, it decided to come back better and bigger than ever – and that’s when he decided to jump to the big screens.
With his 2013 film debut and more than ten movies under his belt since then, Krampus now is a seasoned veteran of the horror genre. If you like horned creatures, birch rods, and jump scares, you have plenty of movies to watch.
There are two more coming, and one features big Hollywood names. Krampus went from the Alps all the way to the Movie Capital.
Don’t worry, though! That’s something Krampus does from January to November. When December comes around, it’s business as usual, birch road and all. Want more? Check out our podcast episode about Krampus below!