Tales of the Krampus originated in what the internet calls the “Alpine” countries, including all the snowy, bread-based countries betwixt Austria, Slovenia, Germany and Italy. Though Krampus resembles something out of German folklore (the lolling tongue, the large twisted horns), its influence has expanded over the past century. As it turns out, children all over Europe enjoy, or at least fear, the story of St. Nicholas’ bane and possible partner. If St. Nicholas doesn’t deem you good enough for toys, you might be Krampus-prey.
Wikipedia begins with a phrase all monster-lovers enjoy: “There are many names for Krampus…” This means he shares a history with what John Gardner’s “Grendel” calls “descendants of Cain,” which are generally beast-like monsters who enjoy cruelty toward humans. Think “the dragon,” “El Chupacabra” “the Jersey devil” and “the beast” when it comes to Krampus, as opposed to mysterious, aloof monsters like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. There is something fascinating about Krampus’ relationship with human children. Is it his job to dole out punishment? Does he do it for fun? If you wonder what motivates a creature like Krampus, you end up wondering what Santa’s motivations are as well. Seriously, both of them must have better things to do.
In Switzerland, he’s Schmutzli, or more interestingly, Père Fouettard (in English: Father Whip). As Father Whip, Krampus travels more often with his genial, rosy-cheeked brother Father Christmas, or Saint Nicholas, and the contrast is considered fun. I’d steer clear of referring to Krampus as Father Whip, though, as the Swiss tend to dress him up as Santa, but in a dirty uniform. He’s also Santa in a brown uniform, and most disturbingly Santa in what looks like blackface. Not smart, ya Swiss crazies.
Although Krampus does share visual qualities with Satan-related beasts, it would be inaccurate to say he’s a Judeo-Christian character. As Jordan Dobbs Rosa sings in “The Krampus Song” (only the most credible of sources on this blog, folks): He looks a lot like Beelzebub / but they are not the same“. In truth, Krampus has roots in Pagan idealogy and imagery, just as St. Nicholas and his decorated fir trees.
One of my favorite Adult Swim cartoons (trust me, the list is long) features Krampus as an eye-rolling, animalistic beast fulfilling some pre-determined role by licking and kidnapping bad little children. This version is interesting (and arguably funnier), but not necessarily in line with most depictions of Krampus.
I enjoyed a creature in recent memory that may not be exactly the Krampus, but is certainly similar. 2010’s batshit-bonkers Finnish film “Rare Exports” gave us a twisted Santa Claus who is neither human nor beast, protected at all costs by his legion of demonic elves. Is he Krampus? Are they one in the same?
Perhaps they both reflect our cultural worries about Santa (why do we allow him access to our home? Is he human? Is he not human?), as both Krampus and the creature in Rare Exports turn the “Xmas” set-up on its head. After all, if Santa is only humanoid, he’s more like a monster than the rest of us.
One of the meanest things I’ve ever done to my brother was insist that Krampus is real. He loves monsters almost as much as I do, so when I told him Santa had an evil partner who followed him around, he practically fainted. I remember doing a Google search with my then-seven-years-old brother on my lap, both of us in our red and white holiday pajamas. He made scoffing sounds every time I brought up a new Krampus photo. “Psh, that’s a costume.”
“I guess it’s hard to find pictures of the real Krampus,” I offered. He sat quietly for a second, and said, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s probably it.” Years later, on a roadtrip from New Jersey to New Mexico, my brother suspected Krampus around every corner. He found it scarier than the time I told him about the Jersey devil, because this thing had a jolly opposite in comparison and specifically lusted after kids. Krampus wasn’t just a monster, he was an anti-Santa, which to a suburban little boy can seem like an Anti-Christ (suburban boys are heathens).
Why is the dark side of Christmas so interesting? Could Krampus be the manifestation of all our distaste with commercialization? If American conservatives are right (…), Santa Claus is an attack on the religious origins of Christmas. Is Krampus some kind of retribution, or a hint that we’re doing something incorrectly?
Maybe he’s just terrifying.
Although depictions of Krampus available on the internet differ in form, he is usually hairy, black or dark brown, with devilish horns and a long serpent tongue. In my favorite Krampuskarten, or Krampus greeting cards, he carries a bound wooden hitting-implement and a basket/washtub for efficient child-napping. It’s not clear what Krampus does with “bad” children, but speculations include ingestion, torture and/or transport to Hell.
In 2009, Stephen Colbert invited Krampus onto The Colbert Report and hilarity ensued. In 2011, NPR covered Krampusnacht, celebrated after sundown on December 5th, the eve before the Feast of St. Nicholas. NPR coverage afforded us a look at the celebrations in Philadelphia, but the tradition began in Europe, to many a government official’s dismay. (The Christian Social Party in Austria literally tried to have Krampus-related activities banned.) On Krampusnacht, young men dress up as Krampus and walk around European streets the night before St. Nicholas’ Big Day, swatting children with pagan swatches of birch branches and dancing around bonfires. Hilariously, Krampus gives out these birch branches, or ruten bundles, with bits of coal to bad children. I assume he does this when his basket o’ screaming kids is full.
Where can we trace Krampus’ cultural origins, if his ethical purpose is still unclear? I’d be hard pressed to find a more official sounding source than “Krampus Dot Com: Who is Krampus,” so I’ve included their timeline highlights here for reference:
2000 BCE Enkidu appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest known appearance of a ‘Wild Man’ in literature. (Controversially, “wild men” are in some cases considered descendants of Hagar, which links them to Christian-mythological depictions of Muslims. Iffy connection.)
600 BCE In the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, King Nebuchadnezzar is punished by God for his pride when he is turned into a hairy beast. (Modern Biblical scholars have dissected how all mention of “beasts” was formed into a conglomerate in later centuries which we now call “Satan,” so in a way Krampus could be considered a distant cousin…)
17th Century CE ‘Knecht Rupert’ appears as a figure in a Nuremberg Christmas procession. (I’ll spare you my ravings on how humans always want to add a touch of darkness into everything to keep it interesting.)
Early 19th Century CE Germanic and Dutch immigrants to the US popularize ‘Pelznickel’ traditions in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and as far west as Indiana.
2004 CE Blab! magazine curator Monte Beauchamp publishes Devil by Design, a collection of vintage Krampus postcards from the turn of the 19th century. This book marks an increase in Krampus’ popularity in the English speaking world.
Krampus doesn’t particularly like children, but he doesn’t seem all that opposed to Santa Claus rewarding the good ones, either. It’s almost like Krampus has a job, and Santa has his own gig, and neither of them cares about a conflict of interest. Just as Krampus doesn’t trick good kids into the basket, Santa doesn’t try to defend children from his nasty brother.
Although I couldn’t find anything distinct on Krampus’ relations with human women (interesting to me because of my earlier post on demon pregnancy), there are several amusing depictions of Krampus awkwardly courting human women who don’t really look all that ruffled about it. Don’t ask me why these tickle me so much.
In closing, I admit that this blog post is a long-con attempt to get someone to buy me a Krampus sweater this Christmas. It certainly addresses all of my interests (monsters, christmas, itchy clothing).