Krampus has long intrigued me, but it’s only this year that I’ve started to delve deep into the lore surrounding him. This post is, I imagine, going to be the first of several that will look at and celebrate the folkloric devil.
‘The Krampus springs from a deep-rooted European understanding of Christmas as a time of supernatural mayhem.’ These are the words of Al Ridenour, author of the brilliant book The Krampus And The Old Dark Christmas.
Ridenour goes on to say, ‘Christmas requires the darkness. Every child understands that it’s only at midnight the Christmas mystery unfolds. The holiday we’ve spun from sugarplums and annual TV specials can’t exist without those dark edges where imagination blooms. Come late November, the child’s world of consensual reality begins to dissolve – magic elves crouch and spy in suburban homes, still moist pines are suddenly hauled indoors and parents whisper and sleepwalk through rituals they can’t explain. Tradition lies heavy as if overseen by long-departed ancestors.’
With his mangy coat of mountain goat fur, birch branch bundle and slithering tongue, Krampus has been accompanying St Nicolas (the Patron Saint of children) on his Christmas rounds since the 19th Century. What Krampus does with naughty children is a world away from getting a mere piece of coal in your stocking or shoe. If a child isn’t punished on the spot, he may be carted off in a basket to later be ripped limb from limb, thrown into a pit or a lake, eaten or taken down to hell. In the earliest tales, it’s said that the children Krampus struck with his switch of birch were sent straight to the underworld.
While his exact origin is unknown, it’s thought Krampus has his roots in Germanic pagan traditions. Thanks to his likeness to the Christian devil, the Krampus tradition was banned during the time of the Inquisition. If you dressed up in a devilish costume, you faced the death penalty.
Nowadays though, everyone and anyone is very much free to beat the drum for Krampus…and hell, do they! There’s so much going on nowadays with regards to Krampus that it’s impossible to keep up. He’s achieved a cult like far across the pond in the USA and there are Krampus Runs happening that are said to garner 1,000 plus furred and fanged beasts.
Austria’s Gastein Valley is a region that’s well known for continuing the Krampus tradition in its oldest form. Visits from St Nick still happen in the region, and he comes accompanied by Krampus. Though it’s possible to order a visit from St Nick where he comes to your home without his demonic aide. The creepy kid that I was would have been massively disappointed if Krampus didn’t turn up and cross my threshold.