As December approaches and brings the year to a close, the Christmas spirit becomes inescapable. One can’t step out of the house or even browse social media at home without being hit in the face by holiday cheer. If you’re like me, and you’ve decorated a tree, baked cookies, the whole shebang – you know there’s something about Christmas that makes you feel like everything’s right with the world, especially now, when it really isn’t. So Andy Williams had the right idea when he called Christmas The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Of course, Andy Williams wasn’t thinking about some of the darker traditions and stories associated with Christmas that we’ve hardly stopped to think about. Like the fact that leaving milk and cookies for Santa was a custom that took off during the Great Depression. Or the story of the Nutcracker, where an eight year old girl marries a doll.
But few yuletide stories are as bone chilling as that of Krampus, the Christmas devil. Where there is light, there must be darkness. Where there is an angel on one shoulder, there must be a devil on the other. So it is unsurprising that with Santa Claus comes a terrifying, yet perfectly fitting companion. Originating from Austrian folklore, Krampus is half man, half goat, with curved horns, a long tongue, and the ‘Krampen’ (a German word for claw) that gives him his name. He comes every year during Christmas time to punish children who have been naughty. This punishment ranges from giving them lumps of coal instead of gifts, to hitting them with sticks or even kidnapping them. But Krampus’ identity goes beyond just the holiday season. In Norse mythology, he is believed to be the son of Hel, the God of the underworld. He is also thought to be associated with pagan rituals for the winter solstice, and became a Christmas legend as Christianity spread.
art: allison moore
Different versions of this grisly devil exist too, like the Belsnickel in Southwestern Germany and Pennsylvania Dutch communities in the United States (who actually also delivers gifts if you’ve been good), and Père Fouettard in France. The night of 5th December is known as Krampusnacht or ‘Krampus Night’ in alpine Austria and some parts of Germany. This is when he visits the homes of naughty kids, leaving lumps of coal in their shoe while Santa rewards the good ones with gifts.
The legend of Krampus seems like an effective trick for parents to get their children to behave, like a Christmas - exclusive Bogeyman of sorts. But as it turns out, the adults have found a way to take their fun a little further. In Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia, men get drunk and participate in the Krampuslauf, or a ‘Krampus Run’, where they dress up as the Krampus chase people through the streets. It was the fascinating stories about this fearsome Christmas nightmare that pushed director Michael Dougherty to make ‘Krampus’, which released in 2015.
Krampus is as much a part of Christmas time as Santa Claus or Rudolph is. And if you’ve been good this year, you have nothing to worry about. A word of advice, though – don’t step out of your house without a mask, and keep that sanitiser handy. I hear that’s the criteria Krampus is going by this year.