Krampus is more than a mere monster or Santa Claus’s antihero. Let’s sit around the Yule log and peel back the layers of this intriguing urban legend. We’ll explore Krampus’s evolution through Austrian and German Yuletide history.
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
Please note that I make every effort to ensure this information is accurate through my own experiences and by referencing sources throughout AND at the bottom of this article.
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Who is Krampus?
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.
Contrary to popular belief, at least here in America, Krampus is a relatively modern concept (beginning around the 17th or 18th century). It does not have ancient pagan origins, and there’s no evidence indicating Krampus is connected to the birth of Jesus or Christmas.
Krampus Legend and Origins
Krampus legends are rooted in pre-Christian Central Europe, specifically Austria. His name stems from the German word Krampen, meaning “claw,” or possibly the Bavarian word Krampn, meaning “withered or lifeless.”
The roots of Krampus most likely derive from Frau Perchta (pronounced perk-tah), a Winter Germanic goddess who is a mix of good and evil. She can appear in two different forms. To well-behaved children, she appears 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, and replace them with hay, dirt, trash, or rocks. Then she would stitch their bellies closed again. Stories tell of her breath being so foul that it causes blindness.
Frau Perchta frequently traveled with Alpine spirits called Perchten. There were two different kinds of Perchten: Schonperchten, who was kind and lovely, and Shiachpercht, who was more sinister and appeared as half-goat, half-demon.
Is this starting to sound familiar? (it also kind of reminds me of Yule Goats too)
Perchtenlauf and The Church’s Intervention
To ward off evil and bring good luck, men in local villages would run from home to home dressed as Perchten. This was referred to as the Perchtenlauf (pronounced perk-ten laaf) and means Perchten run.
The church deemed the Perchtenlauf wicked, prompting some men to dress up as Saint Nicholas as a less controversial alternative. You can also see how the celebration of Perchtenlauf resembles many traditions from Saturnalia and Lupercalia.
Since the church couldn’t stand to see anyone have a good time, they outlawed Perchtenlauf around the 17th or 18th century.
Note – Perchtenlauf is still celebrated today in some regions of Austria and Bavaria, often between Winter Solstice and January 6th.
Krampus Legends and Lore VideoWatch my video about the History and Legends of Krampus
Story of Krampus Begins
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.
During its early origins, Krampus was believed to be a class of monsters appearing during the Yuletide season.
This time, the church decided to accept the Krampus concept to show a contrast between good and evil. Specific imagery was created to link Krampus’s appearance to the devil. Illustrations showed Krampus as submissive to Saint Nicholas, appearing with chains around his wrists or ankles.
Since Saint Nicholas is honored on December 6th each year (to celebrate the anniversary of his death), the night before was called Krampusnacht. Krampus would accompany Saint Nicholas as he traveled from house to house on the evening of December 5th.
Krampus’s Influence on Christmas Practices
Saint Nicholas rewarded good children, while Krampus punished the naughty ones. If children misbehaved, Krampus used birch sticks to discipline them. It was also believed he might take them away in his sack to a place like hell or the underworld. In severe cases, Krampus may even decide to eat them alive.
Households in some regions of Austria painted birch tree branches gold and kept them around the home all year to encourage children to behave.
Despite Krampus’s darker nature, 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!
Italy has a witch called La Befana, Russia is home to Ded Moroz, and Iceland has an ogre woman named Grýla. Check out this article from Britannica for more details about alternative Christmas visitors.
Japan celebrates a New Year’s 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). People dressed as Krampus roam the streets alongside Saint Nicholas, ringing bells to attract attention. Over time, Saint Nicholas became known as Santa Claus, from the Dutch word Sinterklaas.
Since December 25th marks Christmas, some people observe Krampusnacht on Christmas Eve. Therefore, you may see celebrations during this time. Krampusnacht festivities vary by location and region, but most people wear fur, sport a wooden mask, and try to be as frightening as imaginable.
Debunking Krampus Myths
Some believe Krampus comes from a horned deity worshipped in pagan traditions and by witches, but I haven’t found proof of this claim. Although he does look remarkably similar to the Greek deity Pan and the Celtic horned figure Cernunnos.
Others claim Krampus has Norse origins, stating he’s the son of Norse Goddess Hel. However, I couldn’t find a credible source for this. Many websites (I’m looking at you, National Geographic) mention this without listing their sources. I believe this detail is from a fictional book by Brom called Krampus: The Yule Lord. If you find credible sources saying otherwise, I’m open to reviewing 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
What is Krampuskarten?
Krampuskarten is a vintage Krampus greeting card. Most depictions of Krampus in America today are derived from Krampuskarten images.
When Austria’s mail system began delivering postcards in the late 1800s, Krampuskarten appeared. These postcards introduced Krampus to places beyond the Alps.
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.
Mostly, this happened because the people creating these cards lived in large cities and seldom experienced local Krampus celebrations. The imagery they drew depended entirely on the church’s descriptions, which often associated Krampus with the devil (see below).
Decorating with Krampus
Blending Krampus folklore with holiday cheer is a beloved tradition that adds depth and history to the Yuletide season. Using Krampus in decorations adds a bit of eerie fun while also honoring this folklore. Here are a few ideas to help get you started.
DIY Krampus Decor
Crafting your own Krampus decorations allows for personalization and creativity. DIY projects like handmade ornaments, Krampus masks, or wall art can add a unique touch to holiday décor while tapping into the fun of crafting.
Krampus Ornaments and Figurines
A popular way to incorporate Krampus into holiday decor is with ornaments and figurines. These miniature representations of the horned creature often hang from holiday trees or are placed on mantels, altars, or shelves.
Krampus Nutcracker (Etsy)
Wreaths and Wall Décor
Decorating with Krampus-themed wreaths or wall art infuses a slightly sinister flair into traditional holiday aesthetics.
Krampus and Santa Claus Toasting the Holidays (Greeting Cards on Etsy)
Clothing and Apparel
Krampus-themed clothing ranges from cozy sweaters and t-shirts to socks, hats, and scarves adorned with the horned creature’s likeness. These wearables not only showcase holiday cheer but also allow individuals to express their love for the folklore.
Krampus Knit Ugly Christmas Sweater (Amazon)
I hope this article about the Krampus Legend 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.