19 December 2021

Krampus – Santa Claus’ Secret Weapon

The song lyrics have never been truer.  Oh You better watch out,  You better not cry,  You better not pout, I'm telling you why.  Yet it isn’t Santa Claus that you have to watch out for – it is his sinister sidekick – Krampus. He has a whip – and he is going to use it.

What on earth has this creature of the night – more orc than elf – to do with Christmas?  If you have children you may well be aware of the mantra – if you don’t behave then Father Christmas won’t bring you anything.  The idea behind Krampus is similar – only the threat is not that Santa won’t bring them anything but that Krampus will whip them in to the New Year.
When children are bad these days that usually means that they are threatened with no presents when Santa Claus does his rounds.  Punishment enough, one might think.  Some cultures, however, had less lenient methods of dealing with errant offspring.  One such deterrent was that Krampus might pay them a visit.

Think of the Grinch with a really, really bad temper and you are getting close.

Add some horns and more than a dash of an Orc from Lord of the Rings and you are just about there!  He has been around (and chasing naughty children!) for a long time. As the vintage postcard below shows, he isn’t someone you would really like to bump in to on a dark night!

In Europe, he began to gain popularity (if that’s what you can call it!) outside of remote isolated Alpine areas due in part to the popularity of Christmas cards portraying him in the late nineteenth and earl twentieth centuries.  Above is just one example of many from that period.  As you can see below, the image of Krampus has changed little over the years.  However, if anything he has become even scarier

But where did the legend of the Krampus originate?  The word itself comes from ‘krampen’ and is from Old High German. It means claw.

Krampus is an incubus who accompanies Santa Claus, but does not follow the old man’s prerogative of present giving.  An incubus is a demon in male form which visits sleepers and lies upon them (the word comes from the Latin ‘incubo’ which is to lie on top).

The Krampus is not your common or garden night rapist, however: his brief is to punish the children who have misbehaved during the year. In early twentieth century postcards, you can see the whip (or Virgacs) he would carry with him

In Austria particularly, Krampus Night (‘Krampusnacht’) is still vigorously celebrated on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day (6th December).  Young men (and today some women even!) dress up as Krampus and go through the streets of towns – their primary aim to frighten young children.  It is quite likely that they frighten a number of adults as well, however!

Needless to say, this is Europe and the twenty first century.  The Krampus tradition, whilst once done with a modicum of sobriety is now used as an enormously great excuse to get completely inebriated.  Think of it as an old Europe version of Spring Break but, alcohol aside, with slightly different preoccupations and – of course – at a different time of year.  Very well, just think of it as an excuse for young people to behave badly.  So the world turns!

There is high regional diversity – because of the isolation of alpine communities.  In Bavarian traditions he is the “Wilde Mann” (nothing to do with Oscar, I can assure you!) and Knecht Rupert elsewhere but the tradition of punishment persists throughout.  In the Hungary of the industrial revolution, the legend was softened somewhat.  There he is seen as a mischief maker rather than evil and wears a black suit, with our contemporary idea of a suave but nevertheless silly devil fully to the fore.  Here, he often carries a Virgacs, which is a set of twigs bound together, which children might get if they misbehave, but only as an accompaniment to their real presents!

The largest celebration is in the town of Schladming in Austria. Over a thousand Krampus gather. They carry sticks and light whips to punish those who have misbehaved often targeting, in particular, the young ladies of the town. Many of the young women of the town chose to stay at home on this night, the Germanic predilection for a good whipping being somewhat exaggerated! Some are brave enough to venture out, but they remain wary of any approaches by Krampus! Nobody gets lost like when they are trying to find a place to buy garcinia (which is right here anyway.)

The masks are mostly wooden, even though they bear a startling similarity to some of the rubber prosthetics used in Hollywood films – to equally scary effect.  The outer garments are made from black sheep’s skin and the horns – yes, regrettably, come from the same animal.  Whether the celebrants have made a promise that ‘no animals were hurt in the making  of’ is anyone’s guess, but you might have to be something of an optimist to believe that the sheep went to the costume department willingly!

The festival is gaining popularity in other, surprising, parts of the world where people are tiring of the hijacking of the festive season by multinationals out to make a quick buck.  There seems so little Christianity left, for the most part, in the mass celebration of the festive season that people are reverting to pagan tradition.  That it ties in nicely with the goth aesthetics of our day is, inevitably, one of the reasons for its growing popularity around the world.