My first thought was that this was some horrible creature recently created to distract people from the real meaning of Christmas and to slam the holiness associated with the holiday. The reality is it’s an ancient legend brought to the world centuries ago through Alpine folktales. (The Alpine region includes the people of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.) Technically, the creature was a pagan Alpine fertility demon.
The demon is called Krampus and he certainly qualifies as a cryptid, so I will tell you his dark and evil tale.
His name derives from the word for “claw” so that instantly lets us know he’s up to no good. His role evolved to become the punisher of wicked children and teens around Christmas time, or I suppose in their era, the Winter solstice.
His legend seems to have really taken off when St. Nicholas entered the culture because just as St. Nicholas would reward obedient children with Christmas presents, Krampus assumed the role of punisher of naughty children.
In some stories, he was mostly scary and threatening, but in others he was downright sadistic.
According to the legends, Krampus looks like a horned satyr with goat legs, cloven hooves, black matted hair, and a horrible long, pointed tongue. He stands about 7 feet tall and he has bulging eyes and pointed ears. On his back he carries a big wicker basket filled with thorny birch sticks for beating children.
Legend Grows and the Tortures Expand
Some stories about Krampus report that he “only” beats children with his birch switches. If they don’t repent, he puts them in his basket and takes them to his lair where he beats them until they do repent.
Over the centuries some stories grew to include horrific tortures such as pulling out the pigtails of little girls, chasing children over cliffs, excessive ear pulling, and putting preteens in shackles making them beg for mercy. There are even tales that he drowns some children in ink (??) and uses a pitchfork to retrieve their bodies!
Some say it’s a “just” a form of mummery.
What the heck is a Mummer? According to the dictionary, “ a person who wears a mask or fantastic costume while merrymaking or taking part in a pantomime, especially at Christmas and other festive seasons.”
According to the krampus.com website (yes, there is a website!), “The European practice of mummery during the winter solstice season can be traced back tens of thousands of years. Villagers across the continent dress up as animals, wild-men and mythic figures to parade and perform humorous plays. This ancient guising and masking tradition continues to this day as the primary source for our modern Halloween with its costumes, trick-or-treat, and pagan symbolism. Among the most common figures in these folk rituals were Old Man Winter and the horned Goat-Man — archetypes now found in the forms of Saint Nick/Santa Claus, and the Devil (‘Old Nick’), aka Krampus.”
I can understand the Halloween angle, but Christmas? I was hoping that “tradition” had died out a few centuries ago but unfortunately, it’s still alive and kicking today.
During the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th of each year, Krampus literally makes his appearance. Groups of men dress up as the demon and stand outside the bedroom window of kids who no longer believe in St. Nick and/or Krampus. The men make a lot of noise shaking rusty old chains and ringing bells.
That has to be somewhat unnerving, but not as unnerving as step 2 where your parents then invite them into your home! The parents let the men yell at the kid(s), then offer the demons a merry drink. It’s no wonder that by the end of the night the Krampus men are reported as almost always being drunk.
I was thinking it’s a good thing that “tradition” was left behind when the immigrants came over to America until I read that the Pennsylvania Dutch community has a tradition with a similar creature that they call Pelsnickel or Belznickel that they say came with them from Germany.
The Nazis hated Krampus which is surprising considering how involved they were in the occult. The New York Times newspaper reported in 1934 that in Fascist Austria, anyone impersonating Krampus would be arrested.
There was concern in the Alpine region that the commercialization of Krampus was taking over Christmas, so they moved the demonic tradition back to December 6th and linked him to the St. Nicholas holiday. Apparently the revelers create Krampus themed candy and treats, host runs and things in his name, and generally run amuck well ahead of Christmas nowadays.
St. Nicholas is actually an historical figure from 4th Century Greece and Turkey. He did a lot of good for people and became known as “Nikolaos the Wonderworker”. I think I’d prefer to celebrate him and leave the goofy demon out of it.
I guess no one and nothing escapes commercialization in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Krampus has two websites complete with gift shops. If you’d like to check them out, here are the links:
Til the next time!