The fabled Christmas devil Krampus is the exact opposite of Santa Claus. Santa pampers sweet children with gifts and treasures, while leaving only coal for mischievous ones. On the other hand, Krampus rewards no children, but he will whip them or worse yet, he will steal them and take them to the bowels of the underworld where he will either drown or eat them. In Norse mythology, he is the son of Hel. Hel rules over the underworld.
The physical traits of Krampus are just as frightening. Large goat-like horns twist out from a head covered with black, dense fur-like hair. His face is half-beast, half-demon with fangs for teeth and a snake tongue. Instead of legs and feet, he has cloven hooves. Even the name conjures creatures and beast, Krampus, derived from the German word krampen or krazten, means to claw or scratch.
Santa Claus rings jingle bells, and Krampus carries chains and thrashes them together to let the children know he is coming for them. He has also been depicted carrying birch branches, which he used for whippings. Krampus the Christmas devil had many dark qualities.
Centuries ago, Christmas was celebrated at the beginning of December on the 7th. On December 6th, Christmas Eve, Krampus comes to town. This night became nicknamed Krampus Night or Krampusnacht. December 6th is also St. Nicholas Day in Europe. On St. Nicholas day, children check their shoes that they left outside the night before for gifts. Tokens and gifts rewarded good behavior; bad behavior meant a rod or stick.
For decades, the Catholic Church did not acknowledge Krampus Night. During World War II participating in Krampus Night was suppressed because it represented Social Democrats.
People today celebrate Krampuslauf in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other European countries. A few American cities, like Philadelphia and Bloomington, Indiana, are beginning to partake also. Modern times sloughed off the mythological horror stories. Now, Krampus is a spirit that wards off the dark-demon spirits of winter. Still held in early December, it involves people wearing elaborate wooden masks or goat masks, shaggy pelts and robes, and carrying bells, sticks, and chains. There is a carnival like atmosphere with vendors selling figurines and costumes alongside food and drink stands.
Krampus has gone through many stages from the feared pagan to a winter spirit guide. Modern culture has grabbed onto the non-traditional holiday celebration and transformed this mythical figure. Will a Krampus festival be heading your way?