Krampus is kind of like the Bizzaro Santa. Santa is a jolly old fat man in a red suit….Krampus is an ill-tempered demon covered in stinking goat fur. Santa gives presents to the boys and girls that have been good…Krampus gives a whipping to the boys and girls that have been bad.
So how did an evil Christmas monster ever become one of Santa’s “little” helpers? Well, the history of Krampus starts with the history of Santa Claus. As any 1st grader can tell you, “Santa Claus” is based on the 4th century Bishop, Saint Nicolas. Saint Nicolas was a pretty generous guy and at Christmas time he would wander the streets and fling coins into the windows of the poorest houses in town. Fast forward a thousand years, throw in a few bits and pieces of popular pagan myths and you’ve got a character that’s starting to resemble the figure we know as Santa Claus. So by the renaissance, the basic Saint Nicolas Day traditions were in place all over Europe. But over time, those traditions started to mutate independently of each other. But the one thing that every culture seemed to agree on was that the Ying that is Saint Nicolas needed an evil Yang. For example, in France, Santa was known to pal around with a creepy, black-bearded man known as Hans Trapp. Like the Krampus, Hans would terrorize naughty boys and girls. But unlike the Krampus, Hans would take those naughty kids out into the woods and bury them alive.
Not to be outdone, the people in the Alpine regions of Europe dreamt up the most terrifying anti-Santa of them all; The Krampus. For generations, parents in Germany, Austria, Italy and Slovenia frightened their children into being good by telling them blood-curdling tales of The Krampus. If they were good, they could expect Saint Nicolas to bring them treats. But if they were bad, the Krampus would show up instead and whip them with sticks and chains. And if they were really bad, the demon would stuff them into the basket he carried on his back and take them down to hell. In the spirit of holiday fun, some some parents would even have a friend or older family member dress as Krampus and show up to “interview” children about whether they had been good or bad. It was (and still is) a terrifying experience that would leave frightened children screaming and crying for mercy.
But as horrifying as he was, Krampus grew to be a part of many familys’ Christmas traditions. In the late 1800’s, the invention of color printing and postcards wound up making Krampus a true Christmas icon. German-speaking people around the world took to sending their friends and children postcards that featured the Krampus on them. And in most cases, the cards would bare the same, haunting phrase; GRUSS VOM KRAMPUS. Translation: Greetings From Krampus. The message was intended to be a humorous reminder to be good, otherwise Krampus would have to come visit you in person that year.
Krampus fell on some hard times in the 20th century. World War I put a (temporary) end to the Krampus Postcard fad. And when the fascists rose to power in in the thirties, popular holiday parties called “Krampus Balls” and depictions of Krampus in Austria and Germany became strictly verboten. In fact, police in parts of Austria had orders to arrest anyone dressed as Krampus on sight.
But after the war, Krampus returned to Europe. And over time he became more popular than ever. Each year on December 5th, young men in Eastern Europe dress in amazing and horrifyingly realistic Krampus costumes and participate in events knows as krampuslaufs (Krampus Runs.) Hundreds of Krampuses rampage through the streets carrying torches and swinging cowbells, sticks and chains. At the end of the parade, Saint Nicolas himself appears to get the monsters under control and hand out gifts to the good boys and girls in the crowd. These bizarre parades are ensuring that the children of the 21st century will grow up with fond (and slightly twisted) memories of both Saint Nick and his sidekick, Krampus the Christmas demon.