Everyone is familiar with Santa Claus, that jolly old elf who makes his way from house to house on Christmas Eve to deliver toys to the goodly children of the world. Here in the USA, some may know of St. Nick's European heritage, but few are familiar with his dark companion, Krampus. In many Alpine European towns, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day would not be the same without a celebration on its Eve, December 5th, honoring this dark servant.
Originating in Germanic folklore as early as the 1600s, Krampus is believed to be a beastial creature who accompanies St. Nicholas on his earthly journey. While St. Nicholas rewards the good children with gifts and sweets, Krampus dispenses punishment to the wicked children who have strayed from the path of good. It is said he takes care of St. Nick's "naughty list." Why, the mere sight of Krampus alone is enough to turn any wrong-doer toward more peaceful pursuits.
The name Krampus is derived from the Old High German word for "claw." This towering, seven foot tall, hairy creature is depicted as having bulging eyes, a whip-like tongue, pointed ears and horns atop his head. He carries a pitchfork or, more traditionally, a bundle of birch switches, to menace children as he travels through town on a pair of mismatched feet: one cloven hoof, the other a bear-like claw. 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.
Krampus festivals throughout Alpine communities kick off the holiday season with townspeople dressing in Krampus costumes, running rampant through the streets and putting a scare in the youngsters. 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 6th.
For those who revel in the spirited fun of Halloween, Krampusfest is the perfect addition to your traditional Christmas and holiday festivities!
The above images are vintage postcards depicting Krampus, from the book The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards by Monte Beauchamp (Ed).