The Naughty and Nice List wasn’t always as forgiving as it is today. In Victorian times and long before, the jolly fellow we know today as Santa Claus ran with some sinister sidekicks. One was the most terrifying among them. Krampus enforced Saint Nicholas’s Naughty list at Christmas with whips, chains and sacks to abduct bad children.
Santa himself went through major changes through the centuries. From sinister and skinny to round and jolly, he finally settled on his current look in the later part of the 19th century. Many of Santa’s sidekicks, including the 13 Yule Lads of Iceland, have received modern makeovers into warm fuzzy characters. But a few continue to instill terror in the hearts of naughty children. Krampus leads the reign of terror to this day in his yearly parade.
He is believed to be the son of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld. Half man, half goat, he is a fiercely devilish creature. His eyes often burn red like hot coals. He’s covered with thick dark fur. His goat-like horns curl upwards and his, snake-like tongue slithers downwards. He has cloven hooves.
Traditions around this frightening Christmas beast vary widely throughout the Alpine region. In most areas he carries whips, chains and loud bells. He often has a sack or basket to abduct the worst offenders on Santa’s naughty list. You don’t want to know what happens to the misbehavers. In some areas bundles of twigs (ruten) are left behind to remind children who have forgotten what will happen to them the next Christmas if they misbehave.
Modern day versions of this Christmas devil have been toned down in many public gatherings. In today’s Christmas markets, depictions of the Christmas monster are often more humorous than sinister. The kinder gentler versions cater better to our coddled children.
His family tree probably dates back to Pre-Christian paganism in the Alpine region. His name originates from the German word krampen, which means claw. His frightful appearance and demeanor were possibly intended to scare away winter ghosts in pagan rituals.
The rituals are centuries old and celebrate the seasonal cycles that bring fertility and life followed by death in the autumn and winter months. Villagers dressed in furs or the skin of the savage beast. This custom of masquerades can be traced back centuries. Costumes often mimicked wild animals. Favorites were wild boars, bears, and goats or stags. Strange combinations of animals offered frightening twists on the familiar.
With the additions of straw, branches and other natural objects along with manmade materials like steel, the “disguises” took on a new level of fright. These Wild Man costumes are featured in the work of leading French photographer Charles Fréger in his book, Wilder Mann.
When Christianity came to the Alpine regions, there was often an uneasy alliance as in other parts of the world. Rather than eradicating local traditions, Christians frequently syncretized them with their own. Just as pagan Celtic Autumn rituals were Christianized into Victorian Era Halloween festivities, this demonic character was probably assimilated into Christmas celebrations.
Saint Nicholas became a popular figure in the area in the 11th century. In addition to performing countless miracles, he was known for leaving small gifts anonymously. As the patron saint of children (as well as sailors and many others), he would leave pleasant surprises and sweets in their shoes.
Enter the evil devil man who enforced the naughty list. He was the perfect counterpart to the Christian St. Nicholas. Although he frequently travels alone in today’s parades, he is also seen in company with St. Nick.
These Greeting cards have been an art form since the Victorian Era. Like Victorian Era Christmas cards they display a wicked sense of humor. Many have sinister sexual overtones. Nearly all of them show naughty children scared out of their wits.
St. Nicholas Day or Nikolaustag is celebrated on December 6th, with Krampus making his appearance on the previous night or Krampusnacht. Mostly young men disguised in the traditional devilish masks and costumes rampage through the streets in a Krampuslauf. Masks from each village in the region have their unique look.
While the devilish parades are fun for locals in the know, it’s easy to imagine that outsiders could be terrified. The Austrian town of Lienz for example had many new refugees from Afghanistan and Syria in 2016. Local officials were concerned that the town’s parade would scare the wits out of them.
In the spirit of Christmas, they reached out to their new neighbors. Locals organized presentations to demonstrate the masks, props and costumes they would see in the parade. Understanding the way Lienz celebrates the Christmas season went a long way towards unity.
The demonic Christmas character has become fodder for contemporary movies, television shows, advertisements, and greeting cards. Parades and other events are held across Europe and now in many cities in North America. Beware bad children because this medieval folklore is growing into a modern day phenomenon.
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