Each year, on December 5th, celebrations of Krampusnacht take place across Germany, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Australia, and in some parts of North America. But unlike the traditional December holiday, Krampusnacht is edgy and frightening. If you’ve been naughty that year, it might be a bit painful as well. Every year, on the night of the 5th, Krampus and his partner in crime, Saint Nicholas, visit homes to pay a visit to the children. From that point, the story sounds very familiar. The well-behaved ones receive small gifts, fruit, or sweets from Saint Nicholas. The naughty ones get beaten, punished, and if they are really naughty, stuffed in a sack by Krampus and carried away. To make matters worse, Krampus steals their presents and replaces them with lumps of coal.
Who or What is a Krampus?
Krampus is a terrible ancient beast. He is a hairy, red-eyed, half-man, half-goat creature. Cloven hooves, a long tongue, demonic horns, and sharp fangs complete the picture. He’s a walking, stalking, devilish creature that brings an unhealthy sense of cruelty to the world. Krampus chases naughty children and miscreants around with a wooden switch or bundle of ruten (rute); birch twigs. He summarily terrifies and then thrashes the children who have misbehaved during the year; literally beating them for their behavior. Those really, really naughty children? Well they could be eaten, thrown in the river to drown, or stuffed in a sack and taken directly to hell. Krampus wasn’t something you wanted to get on the bas side of.
The origins of Krampus cannot be definitively identified. Most historians agree that celebration of Krampus comes from Germanic pagan tradition. A smaller group specifically believes that Krampus was the son of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld. The name Krampus either comes from the German word krampen which translates as claw, or krampn, a Bavarian word meaning dead. The earliest celebrations of Krampus date back to the 6th Century, however those ancient practices aren’t the same as Krampusnacht, which is connected to Christianity.
Many Eastern European and Scandinavian pagan practices were hijacked by the Church. Their goal was to convert all of Europe to their new religion. In many instances, pagan celebrations of fertility, harvest, and the changing seasons were mockingly incorporated into the Church doctrine. A great ruse to convince non-Christians that this new practice was similar to theirs. But after a few years the Church would start making changes, often renaming the day, or weaving Christianity into their very fabric. Eventually, very little of the true festival remained, and the traditions forgotten.
Krampusnacht wasn’t an ancient celebration, but Krampus was pre-Christian symbol. Religious leaders of the Dark Ages, used fear of going to Hell and facing Satan, to keep people in line. The Devil was a scary guy. Krampus wasn’t an exact replica, but was considered to be an incarnate of the Devil. Of course, they made a small change from the original version. More often than not, Krampus is wearing chains in the modern celebrations. Those chains represent the mythological binding of the Devil by Christ. Those same religious leaders likely welcomed Krampus as a supporting character for the punishment-reward dynamic. If you are good, or play by their rules, you get rewarded with gifts or heaven. If you are bad, or disobey the Church rules, a ghastly beast drags you off to Hell where you are drowned, beaten, and tortured. And to those good people who might be afraid that Krampus might get them by mistake, they need not worry, for Saint Nicholas is the one in charge. It’s a win-win-win for the Church.
Many believe that Krampus was actually a fertility God. This theory is supported by looing at similar pagan cultures of the same time. Horned God, Cernunnos of the Celts, both Pan and Dionysus of the Greeks, Osiris in ancient Egypt, Faunus of the Romans and Indian Pashupati were all horned fertility Gods. For some reason ancient fertility gods all had a similar look. Another interesting coincidence is that the Roman fertility festival of Faunalia is also held on December 5th. The God worshipped was Faunus, who was half-man, half-goat had cloven hooves, fur and horns. In many fertility festivals, there was whipping involved. The whip was a phallic symbol, not for punishment.
How the World Celebrates Krampusnacht Today
Across Eastern Europe, Krampus and Saint Nicholas travel as a team. One handles the good kids, the other the bad kids. Saint Nicholas doesn’t appear as Santa Claus or anything even close. He’s usually wearing the vestments of high priest of bishop of the church and carries a gold staff. Celebrations include copious consumption of alcohol, torch-lit parades, and countless numbers of people dressed as Krampus. Many adorn hand-carved wooden masks, which are painted exquisitely. The costuming is quite amazing and there are competitions on which ones are the best.