Christmas is traditionally a time of cozy celebrations, good food and warm cheer. Promises of Santa with his sack full of presents send shivers of excitement through children around the world. They are jovially reminded to be good or they could end up with a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. And through all of this, youngsters in Austria tremble at the mere mention of Krampus, a fiery devilish creature or demon, complete with large horns and hoofed feet. Whereas the Western version of Santa Claus is in charge of both rewards and punishments for good and bad children respectively, the Alpine Saint Nicolas only doles out rewards while Krampus deals with the punishments.
The name “Krampus” is derived from the old German expression for “claw,” a testament to the menacing appearance of the creature. Depending on the area where the celebrations are taking place, the creature's name and appearance can vary slightly. Unlike our tradition of Santa delivering presents in the wee hours the morning of December 25th, the European Saint Nicolas visits children on December 6th, which commemorates the original real-life saint’s day. According to the customs in areas ranging from Austria and Germany to Switzerland and other nearby regions, Krampus tags along with Saint Nicolas or precedes him on December 5th to deliver punishments to bad children on this day. The practice dates back several thousands of years ago when supposed witches or troublemakers would don sinister costumes and run around the streets to scare the townspeople. Later, the pagan religions observed the approach of the harsh winter season in a similar manner with actors dressed in creepy costumes. Drawing from this influence, Krampus costumes today can range from a scary-looking old man mask to a horned devil-type creature covered in dark fur, bearing a long-fanged grimacing mask and animalistic eyes. They wield an assortment of fear-inducing noise-makers, such as heavy chains, whips and loud, clanging bells, as well as a basket meant to carry away naughty children.
For some time there was a lull in the Krampus traditions. They were revived in some parts of Europe when the idea of Saint Nicolas was revived in the mid-19th century, and furthered by the image of a fat, jolly Santa Claus which was made popular by the Coca-Cola company at the start of the 1930s. Following this, the legends of Krampus were rekindled as seen by the numerous postcards and images of the time. In the areas where Krampus legends still persist today, the eve of December 5th is marked by a procession of young males dressed in frightening Krampus costumes. They prowl through the streets as a reminder for children to behave themselves. With plenty of on-lookers drawn to these parades, some Krampus actors might even use their birch rods to deliver a few thumps to the audience members. Some areas eventually phased out the Krampus customs for fear of traumatizing young children. In many areas in Europe, there are milder counterparts to Saint Nicolas, such as elves or goblins. Krampus parades are not only attended by locals but they have also become a scary, yet fascinating attraction for hordes of Christmas-time tourists and visitors. Krampus is sometimes accompanied or replaced by another terrible creature called Perchten, which also features a horned mask and goat or sheep features for the body. With this revival of the Krampus legend, there are several festivals in addition to the usual processions today, as well as a plethora of Krampus-inspired art and other paraphernalia. It has even spread to a few areas of the United States, with a similar fun but creepy atmosphere that we enjoy on Halloween.
As with many customs around the world, the tradition of Krampus persists today perhaps simply to continue a practice that has been so deeply embedded in certain cultures over thousands and thousands of years. It certainly does have its detractors, but to many locals it’s all in good fun. While it may seem like a rather extreme idea to those unfamiliar, perhaps it is simply another version of the boogeyman, albeit much more visual!
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