Krampus - The Christmas Devil

In the German-speaking Alpine areas of Europe, traditional folklore has told the stories of two very different Christmas-related characters. Saint Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus in America and Father Christmas in Britain, is a benevolent figure who rewards children for their obedient and altruistic behavior with treats and gifts.However, his shadow companion, Krampus, is a frightening horned beast who punishes the children that misbehave and act in wicked ways.

The two were connected in tale and tradition since the 17th century, with the mythology of Krampus being grafted with the stories of Saint Nicholas. However, the full origin of this beastly figure is unclear. Some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated it as having pre-Christian Alpine origins appropriated from pagan elements and was possibly related to the Horned God that was worshiped by witches. There are others who believe Krampus derives from pagan supernatural elements, generally assimilating their version of the Christian devil. Some modern takes on the creature claim him to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld.

According to folklore, Krampus shows up in towns on the night of December 5, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. He is believed to be watching the children, just as Saint Nicholas does, and he watches for the extra naughty ones. The children who catch his attention for their rotten behavior are beaten with a bundle of birch branches, picked up with his snake-like tongue, stuffed into his sack, and are then carried back home. Once there, Krampus would eat the children for dinner. However, if a child wasn't quite palatable enough, he or she might be cast into a frozen lake or dragged to hell instead of being torn to pieces and eaten.

Krampus is described as being a beastly figure made of half goat and half demon; with cloven hooves, spouting horns, a furry body, and vampire-like fangs. In some depictions, Krampus is drawn having one cloven hoof and one human foot, although the reasons for this are unknown. The birch – apart from its phallic significance – may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to 'bind the Devil' but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites. Other interpretations of the chains suggest the Krampus is carrying them because he is a slave; St. Nicholas is his master.

Due to the Krampus’ the resemblance to the devil, the Catholic Church tried to banish celebrations during the 12th century. During World War II, European fascists found Krampus appalling because he was considered a creation of the Social Democrats. Towards the end of the 20th century, the figure had a cultural resurgence, being celebrated in much the same way as Saint Nicholas in some cultures. On Krampusnacht, people will dress up as the hairy beast and walk through the streets, giving children lumps of coal. The Krampus costumes at Krampuslaufs are aesthetically varied—they may be reminiscent of devils, bats, goats, abominable snowmen, and other beasts. These costumes usually some kind of horns and animal hides, as the costumed figures parade through the streets, swatting at passers by with birch branches and rattling their chains.