Krampus, the demon of Christmas who punishes naughty children every December 5th, is the dark companion to Saint Nicholas. The legend of Krampus has been around for centuries, with roots in the Alpine regions, and a name that strikes fear into the hearts of children. However, to depict Krampus simply as evil isn’t telling the complete Krampus origin and history.
These days he is often seen alongside Christmas merchandise appealing to those who love horror movies and stories about demonic creatures.
This article is for anyone who wants to learn more about the origin of Krampus or how he fits into Austrian and German legends. We’ll be discussing history, folklore, misconceptions, and fun facts to help you understand why he’s such an essential part of Winter Solstice and Yuletide celebrations!
Please note, I’ve made every effort to ensure the information on this page is accurate. I encourage you to read further from the source information at the bottom of this article. If you find anything you know to be incorrect, please let me know. Posts on this site may contain affiliate links that allow me to earn a small commission from the purchases you make (at no extra cost to you!)
It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.H.P. Lovecraft
I thought it would be best to start with Krampus misconceptions to get them out of the way.
A popular misconception is that Krampus descended from a horned deity, and his origins can be traced back to pagan traditions, and he was worshipped by witches. However, I have not been able to verify any validity to these claims. Although he does look remarkably similar to the Greek deity Pan, and Cernunnos, the Celtic horned deity.
Another misconception alleges Norse mythology origins. I’ve seen many websites online (I’m looking at you, National Geographic) claiming Krampus is the son of the Norse Goddess Hel. However, I have not been able to find a credible source to corroborate that, and these websites are not listing their sources. I believe this tidbit of information is being pulled from the fictional book by Brom called “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” However, please let me know if you find any credible sources stating otherwise; I’d be happy to read through them.
It has been put forward that Krampus may have been one of the sons of Hel, Goddess of the Norse underworld. This would tie it in with the idea of devils and demons, reminiscent of the way in which some of the early Christians viewed some of the Nordic gods. However, this is undoubtedly not the case and may owe more to comic books and to online games than to folklore.Bob Curran – Spirits of the Season Portraits of the Winter Otherworld
The specific Krampus origin and stories are a bit hazy and unclear, but he has roots in pre-Christian Central Europe, specifically Austria.
Contrary to popular belief, at least here in America, Krampus is a relatively modern concept (beginning around the 17th or 18th century) and does not have pagan origins. There’s also no evidence indicating Krampus has a connection with Christmas.
So, where does all this confusion come from? You guessed it, Christianity.
The roots of Krampus most likely derive from Frau Perchta (pronounced perk-tah), a Winter Germanic goddess who is a blend of good and evil. Also known as Frau Holle or Holda, she is a woman of duality and can materialize in two different forms.
Frau Perchta appears to well-behaved children as a beautiful and kind woman who leaves silver coins in their shoes.
However, for children who misbehave, she manifests as a terrifying hairy demon who would slice open children’s bellies, extract their innards, replace them with hay, dirt, trash, or rocks, and stitch it closed again. It’s been said her breath is so bad it causes blindness.
Perchta frequently traveled with Alpine spirits called Perchten. Perchten were guardian spirits long before they were Christianized. These spirits had two different types called Schonperchten, who were kind and lovely, and Shiachpercht, who was more sinister and appeared as half-goat, half-demon. Sound familiar?
You may also be interested in – Types of Fae – Discover Their Folklore and Magic
To ward off evil and bring good luck, men in local villages would dress up as Perchten and run from home to home. This was referred to as the Perchtenlauf (pronounced perk-ten laaf) and means Perchten run.
The church considered the Perchtenlauf to be wicked and immoral, so a few men would dress similar to Saint Nicholas as a more pleasant alternative. You can also see how the celebration of Perchtenlauf resembles many traditions from Saturnalia and Lupercalia.
Since they couldn’t stand to see anyone have a good time, the church decided to completely outlaw and prohibit Perchtenlauf around the 17th to 18th centuries.
Note – Perchtenlauf is still celebrated today in some regions of Austria and Bavaria, often between Winter Solstice and January 6th.
What Does Krampus Look Like?
Krampus is a terrifying creature often described as half-goat and half-demon with cloven hooves, razor-sharp fangs, large horns protruding from his head, an abnormally long tongue, and dark fur all over his body.
Who is Krampus?
Krampus legend is rooted in the Alpine region and Austrian history. His name stems from the German word Krampen, meaning “claw,” or the Bavarian word Krampn, meaning “withered or lifeless.”
Since people could no longer celebrate Perchtenlauf, they developed a new terrifying creature called Krampus, who assisted Saint Nicholas and looked a lot like Shiachpercht.
It’s important to note during the early days of his origins; there were numerous Krampuses; believed to be a class of monsters who emerged during the Yuletide season.
The church decided to accept and incorporate the Krampus concept as a method of symbolizing and portraying virtue and evil. They created specific imagery to liken his appearance to the devil with chains around his wrists or ankles and sometimes subordinate to Saint Nicholas.
Since Saint Nicholas is honored on December 6th each year (to celebrate the anniversary of his death), the night before was referred to as Krampusnacht. Krampus would accompany Saint Nicholas as he traveled from house to house on the evening of December 5th.
Saint Nicholas solely dealt with good children, while Krampus dealt with the naughty ones. When children were terrible, Krampus would discipline them with birch sticks or steal them away in his sack to hell or the underworld. Krampus may even decide to eat them alive.
Households in some regions of Austria painted tree branches gold and kept them around the home all year to encourage children to behave.
Despite the darker nature of Krampus, by embracing him, the church was able to incorporate pagan beliefs into modern traditions they found acceptable.
Is Krampus Real?
Yes, Krampus is a part of Austrian legends, folklore, and traditions!
In fact, many other cultures and countries celebrate terrifying figures around the holidays as well! There’s a witch in Italy called La Befana, Russia is home to Ded Moroz, and an ogre woman named Grýla in Iceland. Check out this article from Britannica for more details about alternative Christmas visitors.
Japan celebrates a New Years’ demon called Namahage.
Namahage is one of the most unusual festivals in Japan. It takes place every year on January 15 and is celebrated in the Oga Peninsula of Akita Prefecture. The festival celebrates a Japanese legend in which the Namahage gods visit villages on New Year’s Day. Young bachelors dress as the Namahage wearing demon masks, straw raincoats, and shoes. They visit each home in a village and ask if there are any disobedient or lazy children who live there. The purpose of this visit is to remind children to be good all year round.Japan: A Primary Source Cultural Guide by Meg Greene
What is Krampusnacht?
Krampusnacht is a festival that takes place on December 5th every year right before Saint Nicholas day. During this time, men dress up as Krampus and parade through the city streets.
Celebrations typically involve a Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). Krampus-costumed individuals walk the streets, accompanied by a Saint Nicholas, ringing bells to be overheard. Over time Saint Nicholas became known as Santa Claus, from the Dutch word Sinterklaas.
Due to the fact that Christmas is recognized on December 25th, some folks have switched Krampusnacht to Christmas Eve, therefore you may see it practiced on that day. Krampusnacht festivities vary by location and region, but most people wear fur, sport a wooden mask, and try to be as frightening as imaginable.
What is Krampuskarten?
Krampuskarten is a vintage Krampus greeting card. Most depictions of Krampus in America today are derived from Krampuskarten images.
Two years after the founding of the [Austro-Hungarian] Empire in 1867, Austria’s mail system became the first to facilitate the delivery of postcards, and by the late 1880s, the Krampuskarten had begun to appear. This introduced the notion of the Krampus to regions beyond the creature’s Alpine Homeland.Al Ridenour – The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil
However, these portrayals were strange, mildly offensive, and frequently had sexual and racist connotations, and weren’t always an accurate representation of Krampus. This is mostly because the folks creating these cards lived in large cities and were rarely exposed to local Krampus celebrations.
The imagery illustrated depended entirely on the church’s descriptions, which were often synonymous with the devil (see below).
I hope this article about Krampus origin and legends has been helpful! Lots of love to you and remember as always…
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. ABC-CLIO, Inc.1996
Vaughan, Don. “Alternative Christmas Visitors”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Invalid Date, https://www.britannica.com/story/alternative-christmas-visitors.