The Krampus is a mysterious Christmas character. A figure who’s had a burgeoning impact on our Wintertime festivities, Krampus appeals to fans of horror and folklore, those harbouring any anti-Christmas sentiment, and anyone drawn to the darker, more grizzly things in life.
While he’s been around long enough for us all to have a rough idea of what he is, many of us still don’t really know where he came from. A source of fear for many a child in the Middle ages, and with roots in the harsh realities of Winter, it may come as a surprise that he’s become as popular as he is.
Join us as we take a look at where exactly the Krampus came from and what he’s come to represent.
While his origin isn’t entirely clear, The Krampus is a very old figure in European history. Many historians believe his origin pre-dated Christianity and it’s thought that he evolved out of old European Pagan beliefs.
The earliest incarnation of the creature called Krampus can be found in the 11th century, in pre-Germanic Europe. His name even has its roots in the German word “krampen”, meaning “claw”. Like many of the European folk tales we’re familiar with today, stories of the Krampus were essentially used to scare children into behaving.
Depicted as half-demon, half-goat, The Krampus is tall and covered head-to-cloven-foot in dark fur. With fangs, huge curved horns and a long pointed tongue, he traditionally carries chains or branches of birch, used for doling out beatings. He’s often shown carrying an empty sack, as naughty children would be stuffed into his bag and dragged back to his lair to be devoured.
An enduring presence in Austria and Bavaria, by the 17th century he’d been added to Christian tradition. As Christianity spread through Europe, symbols the native pagans were already familiar with were kept and used to make assimilating into a new religion more comfortable. And so the Krampus entered Christian canon as the dark counterpart to that of the kindly Saint Nick. Instead of gifting presents to kids who were well-behaved, the Krampus is the cruel punisher of badly behaved children. What’s weirder is that Santa and the Krampus are actually friends. There are a ton of old paintings and etchings depicting the two of them laughing and threatening children side by side.
December 5th became known as his day and Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) was celebrated ahead of the Feast of Saint Nicholas on the 6th. It was on this night that the Krampus would appear, taking to the streets in search of anyone who had ended up on the naughty list. One popular celebration on this day was the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run), where townsmen would dress up as the Krampus, get drunk on schnapps and run through the streets, chasing children. As terrifying as this might sound from the perspective of a small child, the Krampus Run was a favourite activity for kids and something they looked forward to.
The visit of the Krampus was something to fear, but if you survived, you got to look forward to a winter of gifts and feasting. And, you know, getting to stay alive another year.
The Krampus as a Wintertime character has faded in and out of popularity over time. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Christian world started to reject him as the embodiment of the dark side of Christmas in their effort to deny there ever was a dark side. He became seen as a figure of evil, and the Church wanted to cleanse him from its new family-friendly Christmas branding. Where he was once a punisher of corruption, he became seen as a corrupting influence himself, which isn’t surprising, considering that he looks like the devil.
Even in Austria, one of his nations of origin, Krampus-related activities were suppressed, thanks to the fascist and heavily Catholic Dollfuss Regime and Christian Social Party of the 1920s. Pamphlets were even published in the ’50s declaring the Krampus “an evil man” and warning against using images or practices associated with him.
The increasing commercialisation of Christmas throughout the 20th century left little room for anything that wasn’t bright, cheery and consumable. While the brand of Santa Claus loomed large over the Winter holidays, Krampus took a back seat along with Yule logs, the Feast of Fools and other forgotten traditions that were unpalatable to modern Christmas observers.
Despite his absence, the Krampus did manage to extend a subtle influence over the 20th century. Stories of the Boogeyman and Abominable Snowman became popular, particularly in the Winter months. In some regions of Austria, the tradition of the Krampusnacht never entirely died out. There’s been a slow revival across Europe, with some town and cities returning to the Krampuslauf tradition.
The tail end of the 20th century saw a growing interest in the darker side of Christmas, with films like Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas earning their place as holiday classics. It wasn’t until after the turn of the millennium, however, that the Krampus would see a full comeback.
The early 2000s saw the Krampus make his gradual return to our collective consciousness. The sharp rise in popularity took him from an unknown folk figure to stock Christmas character in just a few years. We can probably credit the rediscovery of the formerly forgotten folktale creature to the rise of the internet, as well as a growing anti-Christmas sentiment. As more and more people sought to reject the most wonderful time of the year on the grounds of materialism, there was more need than ever for a Christmas anti-hero.
Krampus celebrations are seeing a revival in general, but have even spread to countries that never observed them in the first place, like the US and UK. As an Eastern European figure, the Krampus mythology never had the chance to touch the States, so it’s no surprise that in recent years the character has become hugely popular there. Many have started their own new form of Krampusnacht, from organising pub crawls to costume competitions.
Perhaps the biggest change the Krampus has undergone, however, is his very recent evolution into a kind of pop culture Christmas icon. These days, you can find the ghoulish kid-snatcher in the media, on Christmas jumpers and, rather ironically, as cuddly children’s toys.
As of 2018, there have been more than ten Krampus-themed movies in as many years. We’ve had some God-awful ones, like the CGI nightmare KRAMPUS: The Reckoning, that makes its titular villain look like a melting skeleton. 2015’s Krampus (starring Adam Scott and Toni Collette) was the film that really got the ball rolling with its practical effects and mixture of horror and comedy.
Since then, there’s been a never-ending yearly influx of Krampus Christmas movies. Even this December, we have the World War I set Krampus Origins, which makes you wonder what new twists we can continue putting on the old legend.
The Krampus’ new notoriety hasn’t just extended to film either. His popularity has weaved its way into all forms of popular media, from appearances in Christmas episodes of TV series like Supernatural, American Dad, The Venture Bros. and Inside No. 9, to an increasing number of video games featuring him as a surprise optional boss, like The Binding of Isaac, Don’t Starve and Killing Floor 2. Even Overwatch released a custom seasonal skin of Krampus for their “Winter Wonderland” event this year.
Well on his way to becoming a household name, the Krampus has been completely embraced by modern media. This renewed appreciation for the character may be watering down his darker tendencies though, and as he takes a place alongside Santa Claus in terms of fame, some fear it could be that popularity that de-fangs him. It makes you wonder, if our favourite festive monster becomes as commercial and family-friendly as Santa himself, will we eventually grow tired of him too?