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You better watch out: the history of Krampus

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

As Christmas approaches and our houses become adorned in festive decorations, everyone’s favourite jolly red-suited man Santa Claus, or Germany and Austria’s St. Nicholas, appears. However, in Bavaria and Austria, he is said to be accompanied by a much more sinister being - the infamous Krampus.

"Gruß vom Krampus", a postcard from the 1900s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, {{PD-US}}

Historically, Krampus, depicted as a half-goat half-man creature with black fur and a long red tongue, visits children along with St. Nicholas during the night of December 5th. The friendly St. Nick merely punishes bad children by leaving birch twigs in their shoes, whereas Krampus prefers to terrorize naughty children in a more extreme way.

He is known to beat misbehaving children with birch branches or will stuff them in his sack and kidnap them, then when he returns to his lair, the children will be tortured or eaten. With his name deriving from the German word krampen, meaning claw, he technically works with St. Nicholas to ensure that children have been well-behaved and respectful throughout the year. In that sense St. Nicholas and Krampus create the equilibrium between light and dark around this holiday period.

The exact origins of this peculiar character are unknown; however, it is thought that he predates Christianity, with roots in Alpine and Germanic paganism and was originally a part of pagan winter solstice celebrations. Tradition has it that Krampus is in fact the son of Hel, the Norse God of the underworld.

Mass media took this Krampus character under its wing, with the creation of Krampuskarten, during the postcard industry boom 1890s. These consisted of holiday postcards featuring a range of terrifying or sometimes just plain bizarre images of Krampus doing what he does best; frightening children. However, many of these cards present Krampus as a seductive woman who punishes bad men, rather than the horrifying devilish creature we all know and love.

Despite Krampus’ status as a beloved cultural icon, there have been a number of instances throughout history where a ban has been placed on this tradition. After the 1932 Austrian election, the Krampus tradition was banned by the regime of Christian Social Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in 1933 under the Fatherland’s Front (Vaterländische Front), as it was considered a Social Democratic creation.

Furthermore, during the 1950s the government-administered pamphlets titled “Krampus Is an Evil Man” despite the fact that he technically works in tandem with St. Nicholas. However, since then the Krampus tradition has seen a huge resurgence, especially in Bavaria, with local artists embracing the revival with the creation of traditional hand-carved wooden Krampus masks.

More recently it was expected that immigrants to the town of Lienz in Austria, may be put off by the terrifying Krampuslauf costumes, a parade in which people dress up in Krampus costumes, with fur suits, horns and wooden masks to scare children.

This has been combatted by educating the new arrivals. Rozina Sabur of The Telegraph wrote that refugee children in Lienz were invited to a presentation where they learned about the Krampus celebrations and accompanying costumes, in order not to be too shocked by this unique tradition.


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