St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain.
1. KRAMPUS IS A CHRISTMAS DEMON.
Who is Krampus? In Austria and across the German-speaking Alpine region, the demonic character is a crucial part of the holiday season. He’s a devilish figure, with long horns and a goaty beard, much like typical portrayals of Satan. You might see him posed harmlessly on a greeting card or reproduced in chocolates or figurines. But you might also encounter a procession of Krampuses stalking through the town, laden with bells and chains, intimidating onlookers or whipping them with bundles of sticks.
2. DECEMBER 5 BELONGS TO KRAMPUS. IF YOU SURVIVE, YOU MIGHT GET PRESENTS.
December 5 is Krampusnacht, when Krampus reigns. In the real world, people might attend Krampus balls, or young men from the local Krampusgruppe might don carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains, and elaborate costumes to run through town in a Krampuslauf (Krampus run), frightening and sometimes beating bystanders. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house. He might leave bundles of sticks for bad children—or he might just hit them with the sticks instead. He might toss them into a sack or basket on his back and then throw it in a stream, or he might straight-up take them to hell.
The next day, though, is Nikolastaug, St. Nicholas' Day—the same St. Nicholas whose Dutch name, Sinterklass, evolved into “Santa Claus.” In other words, it’s time for presents for all the little girls and boys … that is, all the ones who haven’t already been beaten, damned, or drowned.
3. KRAMPUS MAY BE A MONSTER, BUT HE PALS AROUND WITH SANTA.
Originally, Krampus was a purely pagan creation, said to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology. But he got grafted onto Christian tradition as a sidekick of St. Nicholas, similar to figures like Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany. Since the 17th century, the two have been linked in a sort of Christmasy yin-yang, with Krampus as St. Nick’s dark companion. Costumed figures of the two traditionally visit houses and businesses together on Krampusnacht: St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain.
4. KRAMPUS REVELERS WILL HIT, PUSH, AND WHIP SPECTATORS AT THEIR PARADES.
The Krampus of legend whips people with his birch bundle, but he’s a literal demon. Surely the costumed human Krampus partiers wouldn’t engage in such violence, right? Wrong. Here’s a description of the Salzburg Krampuslauf from a tourist who expected mere costumed buffoonery and came home with welts:
The narrow streets in the Old City section of Salzburg were packed with pedestrians as the Krampusse stomped through. Many people were caught unaware and reacted with terror. Some would flee and try to seek refuge in a shop or restaurant, only to be pursued by a determined Krampus. With so many easy targets, we again managed to escape largely unharmed. At times we were chased, jostled and struck, but compared with the brutality we witnessed, it was obvious we had been spared the full brunt of what Krampus could muster.
This writer went to Krampuslaufs in three cities and described “savage beatings” to people’s thighs and shins, as well as a Krampus chasing down and sitting on a teenager. But despite the fear and bruises, it’s all in good fun, and hey—at least they aim for the legs.
5. THE APPEARANCE OF KRAMPUS VARIES, BUT HE OFTEN HAS ONE HUMAN FOOT AND ONE CLOVEN HOOF.
The Krampus costumes at Krampuslaufs are aesthetically varied—they may be reminiscent of devils, bats, goats, Abominable Snowmen, or something out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. There are usually some kind of horns and hides involved, but there’s also a lot of free rein.
Krampus has also been a fixture on Austrian holiday greeting cards since the 1800s, where he’s shown pursuing women or menacing children. On the cards, Krampus traditionally has a long tongue that sometimes lolls halfway down his chest, and sports one human foot and one cloven hoof—no one is entirely sure why.
6. SOME AUSTRIAN HOUSEHOLDS HAD YEAR-ROUND DÉCOR MEANT TO REMIND KIDS TO STAY GOOD OR KRAMPUS WOULD GET THEM.
A 1958 article about the Krampus legend in Styria (a state in southeast Austria) reports that Krampus would deliver gold-painted bundles of birch sticks to children, small versions of the bundle of twigs he would use to beat people. The families would hang the birch twigs on the wall for the rest of the year as decoration—and to remind kids to stay in line. The article rather primly notes that the twigs are hung “particularly in those houses where the behaviour of the children merits the application of corporal correction.”
7. KRAMPUS WAS ONCE BANNED BY FASCISTS.
Between 1934 and 1938, when Austria was under Fascist rule, Krampus was seen as a symbol of (variously) sin, anti-Christian ideals, and Social Democrats. The newspaper of the Austrian Catholic Union called for a Krampus boycott, and the government of Lienz, the capital of East Tyrol, forbade Krampus dances, and further mandated that all aspiring St. Nicholases must be licensed by the city. They also pledged to arrest Krampus whenever they saw him. Though it didn’t rise to the level of a ban, in 1953 the head of Vienna’s kindergarten system also published a pamphlet calling Krampus “an evil man” and warning parents that celebrating him could scar their children for life.
8. KRAMPUS MASKS ARE VALUABLE PIECES OF FOLK ART.
Sure, you could probably pick up some plastic horns at Tyrolian Target, but that’s not really in the right spirit. Traditionally, the masks worn in a Krampus procession are made of wood, hand-carved by specialist artisans. For instance, Ludwig Schnegg makes the masks for all 80 members of the Haiming Krampusgruppe—and he’s been making them since 1981. Antique masks often wind up in museums; either folklore museums, or ones explicitly devoted to the Krampus. The towns of Kitzbühel and Stallhofen both feature Krampus museums that collect old costumes and masks, and until recently, there was a museum in Suetschach as well.
9. YOU CAN CELEBRATE KRAMPUS EVEN IF YOU'RE IN THE U.S.
Krampus has become increasingly popular on this side of the pond—he's shown up on Venture Brothers, Grimm, Supernatural, The Colbert Report, and American Dad, and there's a Krampus-inspired horror movie. And in an increasing number of American cities, you can go to a Krampus party, Krampus costume contest, or even a traditional Krampuslauf. Los Angeles in particular has a burgeoning Krampus scene, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn hosts a yearly costume party. You can also get down with Krampus in Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, Richmond, Orlando, and other cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Of course, for some people the holidays are scary enough without throwing a demon beast with a penchant for physical assault into the mix. But if you’re the kind of person who goes to extra-scary haunted houses at Halloween, take heart: That terror doesn’t have to stop just because we’ve entered a season of togetherness and joy.