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St Nicholas and Krampus

Krampus: The Alpine monster that terrifies kids at Christmas

Image: St Nicholas and Krampus basking in a smoking stump in Austria |

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…

Written by Jamie Dwelly

How to celebrate Krampusnacht

Written by Rachel Littlewood

A half goat half demon creature sometimes depicted as having one human foot and one cloven hoof, the Krampus’ name comes from ‘krampen’ (meaning ‘claw’) and ‘krampn’ (meaning ‘something withered’). While many know him from the 2015 film Krampus, we need to go back much further to understand how this terrifying character became associated with Christmas, and why thousands of people still mass in the streets to celebrate this devilish companion of St. Nicholas.

Pagan origins and Perchtenlauf

Krampus having pagan origins should be shocking to absolutely nobody who’s seen his picture. Krampus-like characters were prominent features of winter solstice rituals to stave off evil throughout Alpine regions of Europe since at least the 6th century. He’s also been linked to Hel, the Norse ruler of the underworld.

In areas of Tyrol, Austria and Bavarian Germany the pagan notion of light conquering darkness at winter solstice continued in the form of Perchtenlauf, the 'perchtln' ('ugly') versus the beautiful. These mock battles took place between the solstice and 6th January, with women blackening their faces, donning horned masks and even exposing a breast or two to play the Perchtl up until the early 19th century. A tradition that had sadly died out by 1977, with both Krampus and Perchtl now only being portrayed by men.

Krampusnacht celebrations
Image: Rachel Littlewood

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Another not-so-shocking revelation is that the church did not agree with these shenanigans one bit. In fact, it incensed them so much that they banned any Krampus-like celebrations in the 12th century. During the Inquisition, dressing as Krampus was even punishable by death.

By midwinter, remote mountainous regions were often impassable so policing such policies wasn’t realistic. This is why, during the 17th century, some bright spark decided that the Krampus was a Christian archetype all along. He became established as the shadow of St. Nicholas, who punished naughty children while Saint Nick rewarded the good. With that, the Krampusnacht was born.

The fate of anyone getting a visit from the Krampus on 5th December depended on how much of a brat they’d been. They could be beaten with a birch rod, flayed with a horsetail whip, chucked into a basket, dragged to Hell and eaten, or simply all of the above!

Krampus mask
Image: Rachel Littlewood


The Krampuslauf (Krampus Runs) traditionally take place from late November to early December. They culminate in Krampusnacht parades on the 5th in larger towns, which can include over 1,000 Krampuses. Despite some criticism, the tradition continues to grow in popularity taking place in Southern Germany, Austria, Hungary, parts of Slovakia, Croatia, and even Whitby in England has its own Krampus Run during the first weekend of December.

The origins of these runs were the same as the Pagan rituals of Krampus’ roots. In Austria, they were originally called 'Kramperltratzn' or 'Kramperlstauben', with ‘Kramperl’ being the Austrian name for Krampus, with ‘tratzn’ meaning to tease or mock and ‘stauben’ meaning to chase away. So rather than being the devil worship the church originally claimed it was, the unmarried men paraded through their villages to scare the Krampus away and protect even their naughtiest children.

Regional variations

In Tyrol, Austria, Krampus was originally called ‘Tuifl’ or ‘Ganggerl’, both of which loosely translate to ‘devil’ or ‘demon’. And that isn’t the only thing that changes in different regions.

Krampus Runs are exactly that, a herd of free-range Krampuses charging and frolicking through the town. Nowadays onlookers are behind barriers, but they still snatch items from children to tempt them out for a gentle tussle. Grownups aren’t safe from a mock whipping or a hair grab either. But some of these parades have the inclusion of fire breathers, torch-bearers, and Krampuses carrying horsehair whips, rather than his birch rod.

East Tyrol continues an old tradition of the Krampus Throw, wherein a ruffian enters an allotted space and attempts to execute a wrestling-style throw with a Krampus. Then there’s 'Tischzoichn', which began in Tyrol but has spread to other areas, where a group of townsfolk try to hold a table against a charge of those mischievous Krampuses, whose aim is to tip it over.

Making a monster

Krampus Runs also include St. Nicholas dressed in Bishops robes, angels, beggars, and death. While great care goes into these costumes, the spectacular appearance of hundreds of Krampuses undoubtedly steals the show.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the use of plastic or rubber masks and horns. Thankfully, tradition won the day and wooden masks are once again the norm, each one carved from pine or lime wood, and adorned with Ibex, ram, or goat horns.

A 1928 furrier's book lists Krampus costumes as an essential use of black rabbit furs. However, it was also customary to wear outfits of shaggy goat hide, giving a bulkier appearance and unmistakable smell!

The final touch, parodying his alter ego’s sleigh bells, Krampus adorns chains or large cow bells to signal his arrival, stomping, and jiggling to add to the clamour of the proceedings. Is it even Christmas if nobody’s snorted mulled wine laughing at a Krampus twerking his bells?

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