I was captivated by Christmas as a bowl-cutted, gap-toothed child. My family’s modest ranch home didn’t have a chimney, but we somehow received gifts anyway (my parents said that Santa used the front door, because he was familiar like that — no need to knock). My sisters and I made lists, attempted not to pants each other in anger and generally tried to weasel our way into Mr. Claus’s good graces, but we occasionally failed. I’m not ashamed to admit that I received rocks, twigs and even a piece of coal in my stocking, much to my shock and dismay. (There was also a bike in the mix, but that’s neither here nor there.)
If you’ve ever been on the naughty side of Santa’s list, be warned: there’s worse in store for you than broken twigs and the disappointment of an unidentified black rock. If you live in the remote Alpine villages of Austria and Hungary, you’ll have to face up to Santa Claus’s muscle, the hooved, horned and goat-draped Krampus.
Krampus roaming the streets, terrorizing the youth.
Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
These demonic Christmas cryptids, along with a wide variety of other nefarious aides and companions, have accompanied Saint Nicholas on his gift-giving journeys in the Central and Eastern European Alps for hundreds of years. Cloven feet aside, these monstrous figures (really local youths with a love for tradition, with some casual sadism thrown in) are quite frightening to see, brandishing chains, whips, and switches at the townsfolk. According to Der Spiegel, “On December 5, the day before St. Nicholas arrives with his sack of gifts, local men dress up in goat and sheep skins, wearing elaborate hand-carved masks. They make the rounds of village houses with children. When the kids open the door, they’re frightened by Krampus-clad men waving switches at them and ringing loud cowbells. In some towns, kids are made to run a Krampus-gauntlet, dodging swats from tree branches.”
Krampus imagery through history
The big question is, why submit to this type of abuse? (And it looks quite scary. Search for “krampus attack” on YouTube if you’re curious.) Well, if you want that precious bicycle and you just happen to be a bit of a bad kid, you’ll suffer through a few gentle whaps (or worse) from Krampus to keep your presents when Saint Nick rolls into town. As Krampusfest, a site dedicated to all things Krampus, states, “Wayward children caught by Krampus are spanked, whipped and even shackled to be spirited away in either a basket or barrel to Krampus’ lair. Once there they receive further punishment until they are repentant.”
Saint Nicholas and his gang of Krampus
Speaking of repentance, the Santa Claus figure in this scenario isn’t too far from the familiar face I know and love, aside from his questionable taste in sidekicks. Jolly old Saint Nicholas comes bearing trinkets, candy and other gifts for well-behaved children, all conveniently delivered into hay-filled shoes before the fireplace. However, before children can receive their rewards they’d have to face up to both judge and jury, the Krampus gauntlet.
A Pied Piper-inspired picture postcard of Krampus
And what of the handiwork that goes into these horrifying costumes? Goat-masks probably aren’t crowding the shelves of the local costume store, I’m guessing. These gigantic affairs are typically handmade from genuine goat and ram horns, sheepskins and other types of fur. Bells, switches and whips are also crucial to the Krampus facade, with many elements passed down through families. Older masks were carved from wood with pointed animal ears and fangs.
Portrayals of Krampus in art, particularly in postcards from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spread the lore of this terrifying holiday monster far and wide. Images usually show him with a basket on his back to carry away bad children and dump them into the pits of hell. That’s enough to keep me from misbehaving!
Roasting hearts on a spit, naturally. Oh, Krampus.
At the end of the day, after the children have been given a proper fright to ensure they stay on the straight and narrow, the rowdy Krampus are rewarded with holiday spirits, traditionally beer and schnapps. In fact, Krampus celebrations have become so popular that they can last for days before the arrival of Saint Nicholas on December 6. How will you be celebrating this year?
For more information about this storied and historic tradition, be sure to check out The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards.
Have you partaken in the Krampus parade? What’s the handmade aspect of your holiday traditions?