It’s the most horrific time of year — at least, if you are celebrating Krampus: Europe’s demented spin on Santa Claus.
In the United States, Christmas kindles warm traditions of Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and Elf on the Shelf. In Germany, however, Christmas is replaced by much more ominous traditions.
Krampus is the antithesis of Santa Claus. Whereas our dear old St. Nicholas travels to homes delivering gifts to good children, Krampus visits homes delivering lumps of coal to bad children.
But it’s gotten worse than that. According to ancient legend, Krampus beats misbehaved children with birch branches throughout the Christmas season. Sometimes, these children go missing. They’re stuffed into Krampus’ sack and shipped off to his chamber to be tortured or eaten.
“The Krampus is the yin to St. Nick’s yang,” explained Jeremy Seghers, an organizer for the Krampusnacht festival in Orlando, Florida. “You have the saint, you have the devil. It taps into a subconscious macabre desire that a lot of people have that is the opposite of the saccharine Christmas a lot of us grew up with.”(1)
Whereas Santa Claus resembles a warm, jolly old man, Krampus sports the appearance of the Devil. He is a tall, hairy, horned figured character who literally eats children for breakfast. He also bears a resemblance to demonic creatures in Greek mythology, such as satyrs and fauns.(1)
His name stems from the German word, krampen for “claw,” and in accordance with tradition, he is the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. His roots are not grounded in the Christmas tradition, but are founded in pre-Germanic paganism.(1,2)
During the 12th century, the Catholic Church attempted to ban Krampus celebrations because of his resemblance to the Devil. And in 1943, Austria’s conservative Christian Social Party tried to eradicate the evil spirit, but, again, without success.(1)
The creature has donned a myriad of faces in recent years. Krampus has actually become so popular that he scored a comic book series, and Universal Studios recently released a movie based upon the fictional creature.
Krampus also sparks a tradition of parades known as “Krampuslauf” in Germany each year, which are usually held in the Austrian countryside. Parades held in big cities tend to be calmer than those held in the countryside.(2)
Santa versus Krampus
This year, Krampus made his usual visit to Alpine towns, which coincided with a flood of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Although the festival is commonplace in Alpine towns, some people are concerned that the celebration, along with its devil-style costumes, might scare new neighbors.
Many people regard the annual festival of child-hunting Krampus as fun; others think the celebration should be tamed down to be sensitive to refugees in the town. Instead of canceling the parade, city officials have decided to educate the refugees about Krampus.
Refugee children were invited to a presentation to learn about themes, costumes and the traditions of Krampus. Many children gleefully interacted with Krampus. Some children even dressed up as the evil monster.
“I think it’s wonderful that they want to get the refugees used to this sort of thing,” explained Seghers. “You can’t force people to adopt cultural traditions of which they have no basis or point of reference.” Whereas many Americans see Krampus as a sick holiday tradition; others see Krampus as just another part of the winter season.(1)
Although most Americans regard Krampus as a creepy fictional character, he is arguably no creepier than a fat man in a red suit who spies on children, breaks into their houses and steals cookies. And just as you can’t spell Christmas without Christ, by the same token, you can’t spell Santa without Satan.