Weird Wednesdays: A Krampus Carol

Merry Krampus to all and to all a sleepless night. (Sarah/ Flickr, Creative Commons)

You’d better watch out…

You’d better not cry…

You’d better not pout…

I’m telling you why…

A horrifying goat man (who carries a giant sack and some giant chains will kidnap you and eat you alive if you don’t behave) is coming to town…

Are you still there? You haven’t run off screaming? How brave of you. Let’s see how long you can last with this week’s column.

Those of you who don’t live under a rock have probably heard of the terrifying Alpine traditional Christmas character Krampus. This German devil, unlike the gentle and combustible Yule Goat, is less likely to be set on fire than to set misbehaving children on fire, as he serves as the dark counterpart to his companion St. Nicholas. While Santa himself is no pushover, Krampus makes a few lumps of coal practically look like a reward.

Krampus mainly inhabits the Germanic and Alpine European regions, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, northern Italy, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Bavaria. He’s part of a cohort called the Companions of St. Nicholas, mythical figures and animals that accompany Santa in his Christmas duties. Some act as helpers by carrying gifts or even delivering them. Others, like our friend Krampus, act as the bad cop, doling out punishments to naughty children while Santa rewards the good ones with toys.

Krampus is traditionally depicted as a satyr-like character, with long, curving horns, a terrifying forked tongue and eyes full of fire and brimstone. Depending on the depiction, he carries a number of horrible torture implements, including chains, whips, a cat-o-nine-tails, a birch switch, a burning torch and a pitchfork. Invariably, he also carries a sack or basket into which he deposits screaming tots into so he can drown them, drag them to Hell or just plain eat ‘em.

The origins of the character lie in the pagan traditions of the Germanic peoples, though the exact origins are unclear. There are clear parallels with the Greek/Roman satyrs/fauns, the teetotaling forest creatures who would kidnap women instead of children (I’ll leave the reasons why to your deduction). In some myths, he’s the son of Hel, the angry Norse goddess of the afterlife for traitors and cowards.

Whatever the case, when Krampus comes a-calling, then it’s best you hide your children. Kids on Krampusnacht, which falls on Dec. 5, the day before St. Nicholas’ Feast day, were told by their parents to behave, or Krampus would cart them off to his lair. On the following morning, the good children left behind would find their shoes filled with Christmas goodies by St. Nick.

The tradition of using Krampus has dated back to pre-Christian times, though only recently has the tradition reached the rest of the world. In the 1880s, when Austria deregulated the printing of postcards, the character was featured on several terrifying mail correspondences. While Krampus was banned in the 1930s to 50s by Austria’s version of the Nazis, he came bouncing back in the 60s.

Krampus gained popularity in the U.S. after a magazine editor featured several Krampus postcards in one of his print issues. Several comic books, rubber masks and one kind-of-awful movie later, Krampus now has a cloven foothold in Western culture.

One terrifying tradition is the Krampuslauf—Krampus run—when villagers of a town dress in goatskins, horns and wooden masks. Brandishing switches, the Krampuses tromp throughout the streets all night. They’re joined by St. Nicholas himself, dressed in his bishop’s vestments, as well as walking straw bundles called schaben (roaches) and even Death himself. The Krampuses will deliver swift blows to ongers with their switches and otherwise menace any children in attendance.

There are ways to avoid Krampus—firstly, be good. Failing that, give him (or whoever is dressing as him) fruit schnapps. I guess Krampus is, at heart, just a college student like the rest of us.

So be good, children. Leave out some fruit brandy, make your bed, brush your teeth, do what mother tells you and, if you hear hooves clacking on the pavement in the night…

Run. And, of course, stay weird. Fröhliche Krampusnacht, everyone!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.