20 December 2020

Krampus: Santa's Sadistic Sidekick

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 and somewhat sadistic 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.

Image Credit Flickr User Gholzer
Image Credit Flickr User Gholzer
Today, when children are bad 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.

Image Credit Flickr User Giulio Magnifico
Image Credit Flickr User Salendron
Think of the Grinch with a really, really bad temper and you are getting close.

Image Credit Flickr User Wolfgang Wedeneg
Image Credit Flickr User AlexanderKoch
Add some horns and more than a dash of the goblins and orcs from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and you are just about there.  He has been around and chasing naughty children with his whip for a long time. As the vintage postcard below shows, Krampus isn’t someone you would really like to bump in to on a dark night.

Image Credit Flickr User riptheskull
Image Credit Flickr User riptheskull
In Europe, he began to gain popularity – if that is truly how his infamy should be referred to - outside of remote isolated Alpine areas just over a hundred years ago.  This was due in part to the popularity of Christmas cards portraying him in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The image of Krampus has changed little over the years yet if anything he has become even scarier than ever.

Image Credit Flickr User Wolfgang.Wedenig
Image Credit Flickr User COlorfulFoxes
Image Credit Flickr User Traveller_40
So 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.  Traditionally, an incubus is a demon in male form which visits sleepers and lies upon them (the word comes from the Latin ‘incubo’ which means to lie on top), a shudder inducing appellation if ever there was one.

Image Credit Flickr User Tribp
Image Credit Flickr User Tribp
Image Credit Flickr User Tribp
However, Krampus is not your common or garden night rapist: his brief is to punish the children who have misbehaved during the year, to teach them a letter they will never forget. In early twentieth century postcards, you can see the whip (or Virgacs) he would carry with him and with which he would mete out his yuletide retributions.

Image Credit Flickr User Wege7
Image Credit Flickr User s.stegh
In Austria particularly, Krampus Night (‘Krampusnacht’) is still vigorously celebrated on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day (6th December).  Young men (and these days a number of women) dress up as Krampus and carouse 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.

Image Credit Flickr User Traveller_40
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 another great excuse to get completely inebriated.  Think of it as an old Europe version of Spring Break but, alcohol aside, with slightly different preoccupations.  Very well, just think of it as an excuse for young people to behave badly.  So the world turns…

Image Credit Flickr User s.stegs
Image Credit Flickr User Wolfgang
There is a high amount of regional diversity because of the isolation of alpine communities.  In Bavarian traditions he is the “Wilde Mann” 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. Our contemporary idea of a suave (but nevertheless silly) devil starts to come 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.

Image Credit Flickr User alexanderkoch
Image Credit Flickr User Salendron
The largest celebration is in the town of Schladming in Austria. Over a thousand Krampus (Krampuses, Krampi?) gather. They carry sticks and light whips to punish those who have misbehaved. They often target the young ladies of the town in particular.  No great surprise, then, that many of the young women of the town chose to stay at home on this night: the Germanic predilection for a good whipping has always been somewhat exaggerated. Some are brave enough to venture out, but they remain wary of any approaches by any Krampus.

Image Credit Flickr User AlexanderKoch
Image Credit Flickr User Traveller_40
The masks used on Krampusnacht are mostly wooden, even though they bear a startling similarity to some of the rubber prosthetics used in Hollywood films – and have an equally scary effect.  The outer garments are made from black sheep skin and the horns 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 visited the costume department willingly.

Image Credit Flickr User Giulio
Image Credit Flickr User pixel0908
The festival is gaining popularity in other, perhaps 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 some 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.

Image Credit Flickr User Leo.Laempel

First Image Credit Salendron
This feature first appeared on Kuriositas, in different form, in December 2011

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