Satan's little helper: Meet Krampus the Alpine monster that scares kids at Christmas

A 1900s illustration, showing Krampus pushing a child into a wicker basket
An edited version of a 1900s greeting card reading 'Greetings from Krampus!' | Public Domain

On first impressions, Krampus looks like the devil incarnate, with his horns, sharp teeth, long tongue, goatee beard, cloven hooves, Krampus is a half-man/half-goat creature who’s employed to cheerlessly beat naughty children with his bundle of sticks. If they really annoy him, he’ll shove 'em into his sack and spirit them away for eternity.

Traditionally, he’s an accomplice of St. Nicholas, himself a Greek descendant born in Turkey, famed for his enigmatic gifting. In keeping with the good/evil dichotomy of Christianity, such gestures of largesse need a counterpoint, so St Nicholas has buddied up with a being that represents the opposite of his goodness. Enter Krampus, who may well have originated in pagan times, even before St Nicholas himself, from the countries bordering on the Alpine regions of Europe. He became associated with his more-famous counterpart around the 11th century and by the 17th century, in certain localities, Krampus was as much part of St Nicholas Day as, well, St Nicolas!

St Nicholas Day, I hasten to add, is celebrated on the 6th of December in parts of (predominantly) Europe and is a tradition that dates back to the middle ages and beyond. At some juncture, the lines between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas became blurred -possibly by Dutch citizens living in the US at the end of the 1700s- and St Nicholas day died out in favour of Christmas Day. But the 6th of December is still an important day in parts of France, Belgium, Poland, Slovakia, Luxembourg, in addition to Austria and Germany.

In Germany alone, there are two, even three versions of Krampus, all operating with a similar agenda. In South-West Germany, for example, Belsnickel -a fur-clad, often masked character with a long tongue- is the one whacking the kids. Belsnickel himself may have derived from Knecht Ruprecht, also a companion to St Nicholas with a similar, fiendish agenda and still a familiar sight in parts of modern-day Germany.

In France, Father Christmas is known as Père Noël and he comes with a companion, Père Fouettard, which is French for ‘Father Whipper’, which doesn’t bode well. Pere Fouettard dates back to a story written in 1252 which tells of a butcher robbing, murdering, even consuming, three little boys on their way to school. But kindly St Nicholas brings the kids back to life and Father Whipper is enlisted or forced, into service as Santa’s helper as the one who keeps kids in line by, well, whipping them.

Notably, with his beard and threatening appearance, comparisons between Père Fouettard and Krampus are inevitable, but in more recent years Père Fouettard has, without any folkloric authority, appropriated the blackface more associated with Zwarte Piet, also known as Black, or Sooty, Pete, a problematic Dutch tradition that sees white people blacken their face. This Christmas tradition has sparked anti-racism protests in the Netherlands and has been described as an offensive relic of colonial times

Zwarte Piet isn’t dissimilar to Père Fouettard or Krampus et al, in so far as he’s a cohort of St Nicholas and his day of feasting. He’s a more jovial soul who spares the rod while rewarding children with cookies and candy. But Zwarte Piet’s connection to the traditions of St Nicholas is tenuous at best: he wasn’t even depicted until 1850 in a book by Jan Schenkman as St Nicholas’ servant.

Thankfully, Zwarte Piet’s popularity has waned in recent years, in some places he’s disappeared altogether. Arguably Krampus himself isn’t without his own dollop of controversy, due in part to problematic, aesthetic, associations with middle-age depictions of the Devil that have survived until the present. The cloven hoof, the caprine features and, especially, those horns.

Though the figure of Krampus may even predate Christianity itself. Evidence of this lies in Ancient Greek Mythology and the blueprint for the Devil/Krampus, Pan, the cheery god of nature. And predating Pan by some 15,000 years in the caves of the Trois Frères in the French Pyrenees resides an ancient painting known as ‘The Sorcerer’, which delineates a human figure with the body of a hairy animal and its head spouting a tangle of horns.

It would seem that the half-human, half animal dynamic is something that has resided in the human imagination since time immemorial, long before the Christians got their hands on it.

Back in the present, to get into the true spirit of Krampus right now, the best events are centred in the state of Tyrol in the western Austrian Alps on the 5th of December, the eve of St Nicholas Day. The night-time parade features a lively group of spirited (read that as ‘drunk’) folk dressed impressively in fiendish Krampus costumes, cavorting about, generally making a lot of noise and having fun. Even the kids will enjoy it!

If they behave…

Gute Krampusnacht!