While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways -- or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
Beware the Krampus!
He purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6th. In Austria, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Slovenia, Croatia and parts of Hungary, the Feast of St. Nicholas is usually celebrated with Christmas pageants and parades. These parades include crowds of young men dressed as Krampus, which is where the term Krampusnacht (Krampus night) derives from.
Yet Austria is where Krampus celebrations evolve from village parade to full on festival. Austria is where Krampus is so popular, psychologists and schools are considering banning the creature because it's so ubiquitous and scary to children. Austria is where a Krampus Museum can be found in the town of Suetschach. And 14 miles away, in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, about equidistant between Innsbruck and Vienna, is where you'll find the largest Krampus celebration in the world.
It’s a holiday that feels a lot more like Halloween than Christmas.
The Krampus costume is traditionally made up of a hand-carved wooden mask and a suit made from sheep or goat skin. Cowbells are worn around the wearer’s hips. Costumes can be pretty pricey in Europe, and now they’re usually made with less expensive materials, like faux fur and face paint.
Krampus was created as a counterpart to the kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets for their good behaviour over the year. Krampus, in contrast, would swat “wicked” children and take them away to his lair. The hairy beast threatens to hit children with birch twigs or worse, as legend has it, stores them away in sacks or drowns them. What’s totally bizarre is how there are two seemingly bipolar figures for the same festival. One, a jolly fellow who spreads happiness and cheer and the other a demon who does nothing but terrorises and terrifies!
While the men parade around dressed as creepy demons, the women get to have some fun too, wearing masks and representing Frau Perchta, a Nordic figure that may have been an aspect of Freyja, the fertility and war goddess.
Frau Perchta is either a white robed spirit or a witch, depending on the myths that you read. Old descriptions say that she has one large foot, and also appears to be ugly and elderly. Although she gives presents and coins to people who have been good, she is also known for punishing the sinful in a particularly gruesome manner. She will rip open their stomachs, remove the internal organs, and stuff the cavity with straw or pebbles.
Interestingly, in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, there's a character called Pelsnickel or Belznickel who is an awful lot like Krampus, so it appears that the tradition migrated across the water when Germans settled in America.
Where Did “Krampus” come from?
Although the exact roots of Krampus aren't known, anthropologists generally agree that the legend probably derives from some sort of early horned god, who was then assimilated into the Christian devil figure.
His origin has always been a subject of debate because there has never been a single link that has been traced down to his origin. Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word ‘Krampen’ which means claw, is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. Seems quite fitting doesn’t it?
Krampus's frightening presence was suppressed for many years—the Catholic Church forbade the raucous celebrations. But now, people have been interested in celebrating the festival by showcasing both the good as well as the bad side of a single festival.
Many people are searching for ways to celebrate the yuletide season in non-traditional ways.