Krampus: Who is Krampus the Christmas Devil? His Ancient Pagan Origins
We all know and love Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and the elves. But most of us can’t say the same for Krampus the Christmas Devil. In this post, we will enter the scary realm of the Winter Solstice by knocking on Krampus’ door. We will answer the question who is Krampus and discover his secret pagan origins. Maybe by the end of the article, we won’t be so terrified of him. Or maybe the terror continues…
Who is Krampus the Christmas Devil?
Just who is Krampus the Christmas Devil? Krampus is a terrifying winter devil who accompanies Saint Nicholas in Eastern and Central European Christmas parades. You’ll find him in Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, and parts of Croatia and Northern Italy. This “Christmas Devil” is a large devil-looking monster with cloven hooves, fangs, and a protruding tongue. He has horns on his head and is covered in brown or black fur. Krampus carries a basket on his back (to put naughty children) and either chains or bundles of birch branches. The chain tradition is to “bind the devil” and the birch switches are to swat the evil out of children.
Krampus’ Pagan Origins: Was Krampus Once a God?
Krampus’ name comes from the German word Krampen which means claw. As with many modern Christmas traditions, Krampus comes from ancient pagan times. While he’s called the Christmas Devil today, he was once a horned fertility god. There’s an uncanny resemblance between Krampus, Pan, fauns and the Celtic horned deity Cernunnos. In fact, the Christian Devil was made in these ancient deities’ likeness. The horns, cloven hooves, fur and tail are a nod to the forest gods of Europe’s past. This was a way for the Church to scare the “pagan” out of our Medieval ancestors. In addition, Krampus carries birch bundles and switches to punish the bad children. The birch tree was sacred to Celtic and Germanic tribes for its purifying qualities. This tradition resembles the Roman Lupercalia custom of beating people with switches to cleanse and ensure fertility the following year.
The Son of Hel?
In recent years, a popular Krampus origin theory has emerged. Some say Krampus the Christmas Devil is the son of the Norse Goddess Hel. Hel is the goddess of the realm of the dead in Norse and Germanic mythology. While an interesting spin on the story, there’s no true documentation or evidence supporting it. In some legends, Krampus carries the bad children in his basket to “Hell”. So there could be a connection there.
What is Krampus’ Purpose?
In Europe, Saint Nicholas brings presents to the good children. Krampus punishes the naughty children with spankings, and sometimes drowns, eats, or carries them off to Hell. I’m glad I grew up in America where Krampus tales weren’t told to me on Christmastide! What a horrifying concept! I believe the image and purpose of Krampus has been twisted and demonized over the centuries, beginning with the Church’s rise to power in the Dark Ages. We begin to see Krampus in parades at the end of the seventeenth century. An Austrian socialist party banned Krampus parades until the end of the twentieth century. Since then, there’s been a major resurgence.
I wonder if Krampus wasn’t once a pagan god who was invoked for purification purposes, specifically to drive away evil spirits during the Yuletide season. Krampus’ purpose seems to align with the Perchten. The Perchten look just like Krampus, with large hairy bodies and horns on their heads. Sometimes the Perchten and Krampus accompany one another in these parades. One major difference between Krampus and the Perchten is The Perchten come out any time between the Winter Solstice (approx. December 21st each year) and the Night of the Epiphany (January 6th). The Perchten are led by Perchta, the Christmas hag (who was once an ancient Alpine goddess). While Krampus stands on his own or accompanies Saint Nick and emerges from hibernation on December 5th, a few weeks before the Winter Solstice.
What is Krampus the Christmas Devil’s purpose today? With consumerism pushed on everyone during the holiday season, Krampus breaks up the monotony. He brings back the scare that once accompanied the changing of the seasons. Our ancient ancestors saw Winter as a dark time, and Krampus represents our ancestors’ struggles and pagan beliefs. Something expensive presents or Santa Claus could never do. People are longing for older times…with Christmas devils and all!
Krampusnacht & Krampuslauf. The Parades and Costumes
Krampusnacht, German for Krampus’ night, occurs annually on the night of December 5th, the night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Traditionally it’s the night when Krampus comes to punish bad kids. Then the next day, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, the good children are gifted and the bad children nurse their Krampus-wounds. Sometimes Krampuslauf is held on Krampusnacht.
Krampuslauf is the name for the Krampus parades throughout Central and Eastern Europe. These parades are particularly popular in Bavaria and Austria. There’s even a Krampuslauf in Udine, Italy! The Italian Krampuses emerge from caves and chase the men in the town, swatting their legs. It’s tradition to pray to avoid Krampus’ anger. The crowds also offer the Krampuses shots of schnapps. Krampuslauf’s festivities are spreading throughout the world, with Krampus parades becoming an annual tradition in Washington DC, Illinois, Texas and Ohio, U.S. As well as other places in Europe.
The Krampus costume is an old tradition, with the older costumes being passed down through families. The traditional Krampus costume was a hand-carved wooden mask with sheep wool or some other animal fur as the body. Today these materials would be rather expensive and hard to find, so Krampus costumes are also being made with synthetic materials. No matter if the costume is old or new, they are almost always horrifying to behold!
Krampus the Christmas Devil On the Big Screen
In recent years, Krampus’ popularity has soared and made its way into Hollywood. In 2015, Michael Doherty directed a Christmas horror film called Krampus, inspired by European Krampus lore. There aren’t many scary movies for the Christmas season, which makes this movie unique. Sure, A Christmas Carol is kind of scary, but the ghost of Christmas future ain’t got nothing on ol’ Krampus the Christmas Devil. There have been numerous Krampus films made since, but none are as good as Doherty’s movie.
Listen to our Podcast on the Dark Side of Yule (in which we talk more about Krampus):
How to Carry On the Krampus Tradition
Because Krampus is making a comeback, and worldwide at that, there’s so many ways to carry on this tradition during the holidays. Here’s a couple ideas:
1. Go to a Parade
Krampus parades are popping up all over the United States, there’s even one in Texas and in Florida annually. If you live in Europe, near Germany or Switzerland, you might be able to find one close to you there, as well. Check your local cities and take the family to a Krampus parade this Christmas.
2. Bake Krampus Cookies
YES you can make Krampus into a cookie. I found an affordable, plastic cookie cutter in the shape of Krampus on Amazon last year. We made gingerbread Christmas devils to go along with our other traditional Christmas cookies. You can also find more detailed Krampus cookie cutters on Etsy. I’ve seen a few people make springerle Krampuses that turn out amazing.
3. Watch the Krampus Movie
We mentioned the movie before, so when Christmas rolls around, sit the family down and watch it together. It’s probably best for older children, though, as there are some scary parts. But if you want a Christmas movie that’s a little different and to carry on the Krampus tradition, give it a watch.
4. Gift the Krampus Bell
Last year for Christmas, we gave my teenage daughter the infamous Krampus bell as a Christmas gift. If you don’t know what the Krampus bell is, go back to number 3 and watch the Krampus movie. But essentially it’s a bell that reminds the individual that Krampus will visit if they are bad.