What Is the Krampus?

These Germanic devil Santas are a far worse punishment than coal in your stocking
December 11, 2015Words by Zachary Shenal

“You better be good, or else Santa will leave you a pile of coal for Christmas!”

Americans have been using this as a way to get their kids to behave for decades, but over in Austria and Germany they have a punishment far worse than coal:

“You better be good, or the Krampus will come for you!”

Krampus. The word is almost as unpleasant as the creature itself. A mixture of goat and demon, it stalks the dark streets of Central Europe, looking for naughty children to put in its sack.

The naughty children of Germany have been kept in line for centuries with the threat of Krampus.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December the 6th, and in preparation for his visit, the citizens of Germany and Austria celebrate Krampusnacht on the evening of the 5th. All over the towns, people dressed as the Krampus visit. The Krampus walk the streets, swatting at children and causing general mayhem. Just as Santa is offered a glass of milk, a glass of schnapps is left by fireplaces for the Krampus in the hopes of earning his favor.

The legend of Krampus started with the Germanic pagans. Historians believe that Krampus evolved from the Horned God of the Witches, a deity who shared similar traits, including the head of a goat. Through the Middle Ages, Krampus continued to evolve until it reached the form we know it as today. The naughty children of Germany have been kept in line for centuries with the threat of Krampus. The Krampus is not so kind as to leave coal for his victims—He drags them to hell. With such a serious warning, children are encouraged to behave year round.

Krampus is a six foot tall demon, with a furry, Chewbacca-like body, a goat's head, and depending on which village you ask, either two cloven hooves, or one hoof and one gnarled human foot. When the weather gets cold, and the season changes to winter, he can be found stalking the streets  in search of naughty children. He carries a sack to fill with children, as well as a bundle of birch branches to swat at people with. In some cultures the birch switches are left as a warning to children at risk of earning a spot on the naughty list. His distinctive appearance makes him a popular subject on humorous Christmas cards, usually shown eating children. He is one of the most distinctive figures in Germanic folklore.

Though the monster's influence has waxed and waned in the past two centuries, the Krampus is currently very popular, appearing in places as diverse as the silver screen in the Krampus movie (and on page 24 of the Huckberry Holiday Catalog).

Whether you believe in him or not, if you find looking at a bundle of birch branches under your tree on Christmas morning, you'd better behave yourself. You've got a year to do better. [H]

Zach Shenal is an adventure photographer based on Maryland's Delmarva Peninsula. He takes photos for Outward Bound and can't wait to give ice climbing another shot.


Images ©: 1; Wikipedia. 2; YouTube. 3; Tumblr. 4; Wired. 5; National Geographic. 6; Democratic & Chronicle. 7; Truth Sayer.

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