Krampus Is the Scariest Christmas Tradition in the World

Santa's scary helper, Krampus, has ancient roots and is making a cultural comeback. Find out about the origins of this strange figure and his connections to our more familiar St. Nick.

December 17, 2019

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

Photo By: Steve Larese

An Ancient Tradition

Associated with the Alpine region, the Krampus tradition ranges from southern Germany into parts of Austria, northern Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Krampus plays bad cop to Saint Nicolas’ good cop, and bad children are threatened with whipping with birch sticks from Krampus, or even being thrown into his basket and carried away, whereas good children are rewarded by Saint Nicholas with toys and candy.

Getting Carried Away

A Krampus attempts to carry away a smiling spectator during Munich's annual Krampuslauf. Krampus was believed to have thrown the worst-behaved children into his basket and carried them away, undoubtedly a popular threat made by parents. The name Krampus is derived from a German word for claw, krampen.

Greetings From Krampus

Modern Christmas as it’s known today in the United States owes its identity largely to marketing efforts by Coca-Cola and other corporations in the 1930s. Many Christmas traditions such as Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, yule logs and stockings were brought to the United States by German immigrants, who in turn adopted these traditions from often pagan origins associated with the Winter Solstice. Krampus greeting cards called Krampuskarten were once popular in Europe and the United States in the 1800s with the phrase Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from the Krampus). Sets of these cards are again being sold as the Krampus tradition is rediscovered.

Befana, the Good Christmas Witch

Throughout the Tyrol/Alps region is the ancient story of Befana, a good witch who was asked by the Three Wise Men to accompany them to the manger to greet the Baby Jesus. Befana gave the Wisemen a place to stay for the night, but declined their offer as she had too much housework to do. She later felt bad about her decision, and gathered toys for the baby Jesus and set off to find him. It is Befana in some areas of this region that flies through the night on her broomstick and comes down the chimney looking for the baby Jesus. She leaves toys for good children and coal from the fireplace for bad children to reminds them to be better for next year. Called the Italian Santa Claus, she visits homes on the eve of Epiphany, the night of January 5. Befana sometimes begins Krampuslaufs by sweeping the way for Saint Nicholas and the Krampuses, and sometimes swatting or sweeping spectators out of the way.

Coal in Your Stocking

Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, is the most well-known Christmas tradition around the world. Thought by some historians to have been an actual person, the story of Santa Claus originates in Turkey in the 4th Century. As one legend goes, there was a poor man who had three daughters, but could not afford dowries for their marriages. Saint Nicholas took pity upon him, and sent bags of gold down his chimney so his daughters could marry. The gold landed in socks drying by the fire. Word spread, and soon people throughout the area were hanging stockings by the fireplace in hopes Saint Nicholas would leave them gold as well. Krampus would accompany Saint Nicholas, however, and leave coal for bad children. Coal being left for bad children is still a part of Christmas myth in the the United States, though it has become detached from its Krampus origins.

Perchten, Bringers of Spring

Often accompanying the Krampuses during Krampuslaufs are perchten, similarly scary creatures that have multiple horns as opposed to Krampus’s two. Perchten date to pagan times and were designed to scare away the spirits of winter and bring about spring. Krampus is believed to have developed from this ancient pagan tradition and to have been incorporated into early post-pagan Christmas traditions. Drawings of Krampus begin to appear in the 1600s.

Santa's Little Helper

Krampus possibly pre-dates Christianity as a pagan concept, and was incorporated into traditions here as Christianity spread throughout remote Alpine regions. Some historians believe he has roots in the Saytres of Greek mythology, which is possibly where the concept of the Devil being part goat originated from. By design Krampus is terrifying, and is often referred to as a demon. But he works together with Saint Nicolas, only punishing those who misbehave.

You'd Better Watch Out...

Krampus is a Christmas demon who dates back centuries throughout the Tyrol/Alpine region of Europe from southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy into Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Krampus works in conjunction with Saint Nicholas, playing bad cop to his good. Whereas Saint Nicholas rewards good children with presents left in shoes and stockings, Krampus beats bad children with birch sticks and carries away the worst in a woven basket he wears on his back. In this region Saint Nicholas Day is on December 6, and that night children put out shoes to be filled with toys. But the night of December 5 belongs to Krampus who seeks out misbehaved children.

A New Generation of Krampuses

Even in the cold of December Krampus outfits are hot, with little ventilation, and can weight more than 200 pounds. The wooden masks alone can weigh 20 pounds or more. Social media is helping to increase the popularity of this once obscure tradtion, and more young people are becoming interested in Krampuslaufs as a way to learn about their regions’ culture and history.

A Scary Investment

Participants spend many hours and much money on their outfits, which can weigh 200 pounds or more and cost thousands of Euros. Some have been passed down for generations. Real horse, ox and goat hair is used, and heavy cow bells are often worn. The grotesque masks are expertly carved of wood and painted, and are often capped with real goat and ram horns. Woven baskets are worn on backs with which to carry away bad children, with birch switch bundles at the ready to swat misbehaving children. Participants pride themselves on the historic authenticity of their outfits.

Heavenly Treats

Sometimes angels parade with the Krampuses as well, passing out candy to the delight of children during Krampuslauf, which is German for Krampus Run.

Munich's Krampus Convention

Munich sees a large, annual Krampuslauf (Krampus Run), usually on the Sunday following the Feast of Saint Nicholas that falls on Dec. 6. Groups from around South Tyrol converge in the Marienplatz, Munich’s historic city center. Each group has different outfits, but they all feature two long horns and a long tongue.

Holiday Cheer

Krampuslaufs often take place through city squares where Christmas markets are taking place, usually beginning in mid-November until the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

Jingle Bells

During the parade Krampus groups jump up and down to ring their deafening bells, and sometimes engage in birch switch battles with one another to the delight of the crowd. Munich’s Krampuslauf is known for being good-natured; in some other regions Krampuslauf are known to get rowdy, and Krampuses have been known to leave bruises with strikes from their birch branches, called rutens.

Just Your Friendly Neighborhood Christmas Demon

Children can be overwhelmed at first by the sight and noise of scores of parading Krampuses but soon come to enjoy the event, encouraged by laughing adults. Participants engage the crowd with hugs, high-fives and fist-bumps, and a selfie with Krampus is a much sought-after profile pick throughout the Tyrol region during the holidays.

Free Hugs

Once terrifying events designed to scare children, Krampuslaufs today are typically good-natured events filled with friendly interactions and comedic antics. Krampuslaufs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, including events in Detroit and Los Angeles. Some in Pennsylvania are already familiar with Krampus by a different name — Belsnickel, who was introduced in the 1800s by German immigrants.

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