When the bell tolls, Krampus runs down your street. He knows you’ve been a naughty child and he’s ready to pop you into his pack and give your bottom a smack. Heard of him? Interest in the Christmas Devil known as Krampus is growing worldwide. In light of this particularly unruly Yuletide figure, there are some who celebrate his night, Krampusnacht with parades, drinking and fun. Others might choose a more “tame” night. Learn the origins of the holiday Krampusnacht and ways to celebrate the Night of Krampus.
Krampusnacht wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the main man himself, Krampus. Krampus is also called the Christmas Devil, for he takes on the appearance of the Christian Devil in some cases. When he’s not red, cloven-hoofed and holding a pitchfork (as is seen in the postcard depictions), Krampus typically appears as a tall, dark-furred creature with horns, sharp teeth and sometimes with a long, protruding tongue. In other depictions, he rides a goat and sometimes a broomstick. He carries a bundle of Birch twigs that he also uses to whip naughty children and disobedient women.
We don’t know exactly who Krampus is, just that he is an enigma likely stemming from older pagan times. Scholars have made connections between the Christmas Devil and other ancient pagan fertility gods like Pan, Cernunnos, Faunus and Bacchus. Author Judika Illes takes note of Krampusnacht being celebrated on the same day as an ancient Roman festival called Faunalia. Faunalia was celebrated in Rome around December 5th in honor of the fertility god Faunus. And, what do you know, Faunus is the Roman equivalent to the Greek fertility god Pan. Both of whom manifest as half-man half-goat with cloven hooves, fur and horns. Just like our boy here.
What we do know is the origin of Krampus hails from Southern Germany, in the Bavarian Alps. Though his image has seemingly spread worldwide these days. In Bavaria the people celebrate Krampusnacht and have a “running of the Krampuses” or Krampuslauf. This is a parade that’s become quite popular in modern times and drives tourism to the region in the Winter months.
Krampusnacht, Krampus night, is held annually on December 5th. Traditionally, Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas and sometimes the Christkind in processions. He carries his birch switch, a basket or pack on his back, and often wears bells and/or rattling chains. The birch switch is to swat people who have been disobedient, yet we can see the undeniable comparison between the ancient Roman fertility festivals like Lupercalia, in which people ran around the town swatting one another with branches. This was a way to ensure fertility, and some believed if a woman was switched she would be pregnant soon. Another nod to Krampus’ potential fertility god origins.
In addition to swatting the “naughty ones”, Krampus’ presence is supposed to scare children into behaving in the coming year. His pack on his back is believed to hold the children who have been particularly naughty, and he’s also said to give out coal instead of candy. During the Krampuslauf, men and women dress up as Krampuses and run around town performing these tasks during the procession. There’s quite a bit of drinking and debauchery during Krampusnacht, and it’s likely that we are just carrying on the older pagan traditions in our revelry.
In Berchtesgaden, the creatures that descend from the mountain resemble Krampus but are called Buttnmandl. Some of the Buttnmandl look uncannily like Krampus, but these “beings” are believed to drive out the evil spirits to purify the town for good. And this tradition doesn’t take place on Krampusnacht but rather in the days after Christmas leading up to the Feast of the Epiphany in January. Some folks get Frau Perchta confused with Krampus. She is not the female version of the Christmas Devil. She is, in and of herself, her own terrifying Yuletide creature with her own ancient pagan goddess origins.
Some of us may be fortunate enough to live in an area that upholds Krampusnacht or we may even be lucky enough to visit the region one day. Either way, here’s a few simple ways to celebrate Krampusnacht this Winter season.
I feel like this is the most obvious way to celebrate Krampusnacht. But if you have the ability, go to a Krampus parade and take some friends or family members (just be aware the kids might be traumatized hereafter). There are many large cities in the United States, in certain places in Europe, and in Australia that are carrying on this tradition.
Since birch is representative of purification, fertility, and Krampus, why not make your own bundle o’ birch twigs to celebrate Krampusnacht? This bundle can be placed at your front door to ward off evil and bring in prosperity over the holidays from December 5th on. Or make a small bundle and place it somewhere in your Yuletide tree in honor of Krampus.
If you’ve never seen the Krampus movie, and you prefer to stay in on Krampusnacht, make it a movie night. While some of the lore and tradition of Krampus made it into this comedic horror film, much of it is pure fantasy. But it’s fun nonetheless and makes for a very devilish night in. Take note of the Krampus in the end too.
After you’ve watched the Krampus movie with your family, consider purchasing a Krampus bell from Etsy (I believe I got mine on Amazon for about $30). Then wrap it and gift it to an unsuspecting victim, ahem…I mean loved one. This little prank made for a fun memory at my house last year on Krampusnacht.
Santa Claus likes cookies, but so does Krampus. We enjoy making Krampus cookies on Krampusnacht every year. It’s as simple as finding a Krampus cookie cutter and baking your favorite recipe. We’ve made Krampus sugar cookies, gingerbread and springerle. You can leave some out for Krampus on his night, just to put the fear of God into the kids…if you so choose. Or just eat them yourself.
Krampusnacht in its hometown is all about the masks and costumes. Many of these are family heirlooms and have been passed down through families for decades. They are typically made of chamois, clay and real animal horns. But, if you live elsewhere in the world, you might not have a family of Christmas devils willing to pass down their infernal duds to you. Instead, consider making your own mask and costume. You’ll need faux fur from the fabric store and maybe some paper mache for your mask. Don’t forget the most important accessory – your horns. These can literally be constructed from aluminum foil and then spray painted as you please.
Maybe a lesser known factoid about Krampus is that he relishes a good time…booze and all. At the Krampuslauf in Bavaria, the Krampuses on parade are known to partake in some Schnapps. Sometimes so much so that they get a little out of hand. And then debauchery ensues. Be like the Krampuses and make your own Krampus cocktail, like this one, OR simply drink ale or Schnapps to uphold the ages-old tradition.
You don’t have to just give Krampus bells away on Krampusnacht, you can also RING the Krampus bells! Traditionally, the Perchten and Krampuses are known to wear or carry bells with them through the procession. This custom wards off evil and purifies the town. I’d surmise the bells are also a warning the Christmas devil is coming close. Ringing bells in your home acts as a cleansing method as old as time.
You don’t have to subscribe to the cheerful, angelic Christmas every year. You can go full-on goth and decorate your tree and home in Krampus-style decorations. Hang bells all over the tree and put a Krampus statue or mask at the top. Birch twigs and twinkly lights are right up Krampus’ alley. In addition, they’re even making Christmas sweaters and gear featuring our favorite Yuletide monster.
We were always taught if you didn’t get candy and gifts in your stocking, you’d get coal. And coal? That was most definitely a punishment. At least to modern kids, maybe. Back in the day, coal was useful. It provided a fuel source for the hearth fire…a fire that kept people ALIVE. SO if Krampus gives you coal on Krampusnacht, don’t take it as a punishment. Take it as a sign of LIFE, survival and prosperity. Or try making a fun dessert out of it; try this Oreo lumps of coal recipe.
In Victorian times, postcards with holiday scenery were popular. At some point, Krampus postcards even burst onto the Christmas market. Apparently there was an entire Krampus series of postcards, most of them depicting him as a red-faced, cloven-hoofed devil with children shoved into his pack. But here’s the best part, postcards with Krampus are easy to find these days. And if you’d like to get someone else in on the creepy Yuletide festivities, send them a postcard for Krampus’ night.
As I’ve searched for folklore featuring Krampus, I realized something. It’s kind of difficult to find. At least for an American. That being said, get your hands on any German folklore books specifically focused on Bavarian tales. Sadly, the true origins of Krampus have been lost in time and due to conversion in the Middle Ages. Wouldn’t it be fun to honor the tradition by curling up with Germanic lore on his feast night?
The simplest way to observe Krampusnacht is to wear and use his colors – red and black. If you’re going to a party or just to work, pair red with black and you’ll know it’s your way of honoring the Christmas devil. Eat red and black foods on this night. Light red and black candles for the holiday. Decorate your tree in red and black ornaments.
There’s a crisp hint of magic in the air. And a sense of warmth and …September 21, 2023