The Misunderstood Legend of Krampus

High in the snowy back country of Germany children everywhere look forward to the early December feast day of St. Nicholas, that kindly gift bringer of ancient origin. But unlike other children German kids have not only to be on the lookout for St. Nick – but also for his alleged dark opposite known as Krampus.

St. Nicholas is for the nice kids – Krampus is for those who are challenged with the concept of being nice.

Krampus’ image is anything but merry — or like anything else associated with Christmas.

He is a beast that looks like half a goat with horns and a bifurcated tongue. He is hairy. And when it comes to Christmas, he is all business.

Krampus is an ancient character still celebrated as much as St. Nicholas in parts of Germany. Like all the great legendary figures of Christmas his true origin is unknown and like Santa Claus his image has morphed over time.

His name comes from the German word krampen, which means claw. Some say he is the son of Hel from Norse mythology. Others say his physical features or even the chain and rusty old bells he wears come from other demonic-like creatures of Greek mythology.

Krampus is known for carrying birch sticks, which he uses to beat naughty kids as he tries to kidnap them and take them to wherever it is he is from (likely not a welcoming place). The mere thought of Krampus terrorizes children.

The tradition of Krampus has been taken to wild new levels in modern times in different areas of Austria, Hungary and Germany. Now packs of drunken men dressed as devils roam the streets looking for whatever kind of trouble they can find during Krampuslauf, a kind of holiday free-for-all.

Krampus, like St. Nicholas, has become wildly commercial. He has become a staple of holiday comic books, the star of Hollywood horror flicks, and the anti-Christmas symbol plastered on trinkets, t-shirts, and ugly Christmas sweaters alike.

This modern morphing of Krampus is unfortunate. The truth of the matter is that Krampus is not the anti-Santa. He is not a Christmas villain. He is, in fact, Santa’s partner.

Like Black Pete, Krampus is misunderstood.

Anciently he worked alongside St. Nicholas to ensure that good prevailed.

Granted, his methods were ever more severe than Santa’s. But Nicholas was a saint – and not one who should have to handle the rebellious and unruly.

The modern misunderstanding of Krampus is not new.

Over the years different political regimes lobbying for the fate of Austria and territories round about often accused Krampus of being the symbol of the devil, in cahoots with opposing forces.

Like it or not, the modern image Krampus has been hijacked from all good intentions he may have enjoyed in folklore. He is cemented now in several cultures as a monster alone with no good to be imposed on anyone by his presence.

He is the personification of fear and the ultimate Christmas nightmare – much to the delight of adults who want to act like the very children Krampus was intended to correct.

8 thoughts on “The Misunderstood Legend of Krampus

  • November 29, 2015 at 2:33 pm
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    Where did you find your definition for Krampen? Although this is a good post, I can’t find anything in any of my resource materials that supports the translation you’ve provided.

    Krallen means claws in English.

    Here’s the definition of Krampen from http://www.dict.cc/?s=Krampen
    cramp (iron); pick (tools)

    Intriguing legend!

    Reply
    • November 29, 2015 at 10:59 pm
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      At the moment I can’t recall but I would bet it didn’t come from a strict dictionary definition of the word as much as it was another resource in researching the legend of Krampus. Your definition is bound to be more technically correct. What I recall in researching this piece was the cloven feet of the figure and what a frightening image that must of been for children of the time to have such an imposing figure with such frightful features. The legend is fragmented, almost by what you could call county lines, with unique takes on the figure within a relatively small geographical area of Europe. His legend only spread so far and even within those Alpine countries where he was a dominant Christmas figure there are variants in his many characteristics. Like Black Pete in the Netherlands I believe he was more bark than bite — more whimsical than terrifying, despite what movie makers of today want to make him out to be. Of course, the same can indeed be said of Santa Claus, too.

      Reply
  • November 30, 2015 at 11:19 am
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    WOW. Isn’t it amazing that an ancient legend can be reborn and celebrated in so many new ways?

    Reply
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    • December 3, 2016 at 8:29 am
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      We’d be interested in knowing more about the ancient roots of Krampus, if you have sources to share. Of course, Christianty pre-dates Christ, as is widely known and acknowledged.

      Reply

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