He looks to be part human, part goat, purely demonic, and all scary. He sports horns and fangs and claws and a monster tongue. And each Christmas season, he carries off the naughty in baskets with chains and bells for whippings with birch sticks intended to turn them nice.He’s Krampus, the anti-Santa of Austro-Bavarian Alpine traditions who, in recent years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. December 5, the day before the Feast of St. Nicholas, is Krampusnacht.
Krampus originates from Norse mythology, where he is the son of Hel, the giantess ruler of the dead in an evil underworld called Helheim. Krampus truly acts the part of his mother’s son in the myths, and witches worship him.
Krampusnacht, as initially celebrated from the 18th century onward in northern European regions from Austria to Russia, typically featured someone dressed as St. Nicholas walking the streets to visit homes and businesses with someone else dressed as Krampus in tow.
The saint would distribute gifts to those deemed worthy, while the demon doled out coal and rotten sticks as a warning to others.
Following these Krampusnacht rituals, children left their shoes outside overnight to learn where they stood in the behavioral rankings. Come the morning, candy in your footwear indicated that St. Nick had been by and all was well. A rod in your boot, however, meant that Krampus had his hideous eye on you, so it was high time to clean your room, quit whining, and finish your chores.Toward the end of the 1800s, postcards featuring Krampus became enormously popular. Usually their images depicted the ogre-like fiend terrorizing kids who don’t listen to their parents, often accompanied by ominous warnings such as “Greetings from Krampus” or simply “Be Good!” Other postcards were more adult in nature and featured Krampus being suggestively salacious with sexy women.
In present times, Krampusnacht is an occasion for nighttime festivals and raucous celebrations in honor of how this bestial punisher balances out Santa’s kindness and generosity.
It’s also an occasion for grown-ups to strut about in ever increasingly inventive — and scary — Krampus costumes. Parades, performances, bar crawls, and races where horn-headed runners speed forward on cloven hooves typify modern Krampusnacht revelry.
The contemporary prominence of Krampus in Yuletide celebrations is thought to stem from best-selling book collections of vintage postcards published in 2004 and 2010 by graphic designer Monte Beauchamp. The books ignited a full-blown Krampus craze that went international and has only expanded each Christmas season.
The recent book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas by Al Ridenour (Feral House, 2016) provides a thoroughly engaging, up-to-the-minute history of the phenomenon. In December 2015, Hollywood even supplied moviegoers with a modern Krampus holiday horror hit.
Despite how our 24-hour media culture reports nonstop on transgressions and tragedies, one entirely heartening fact of the 21st century is that war, murder, and other violent transgressions have been consistently dropping in frequency and severity worldwide, and notably in the United States. Could it be the surge in popularity of Krampus has positively affected the generation presently most prone to being very naughty?
After all, just look at Krampus. He does seem to pack more corrective punch than vague threats of maybe getting some lumps of coal in your stocking. So for that, Krampus, the world thanks you.
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Main image: Wikimedia Commons