Krampus of Alpine Folklore

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What can be said about Krampus that hasn't already been said?

Early 1900s card reading "Gruss vom Krampus" ("Greetings from Krampus").
Krampus having trouble with his takeout. Early 1900s card reading "Gruss vom Krampus" ("Greetings from Krampus").

Krampus is one of the more well-documented supernatural creatures I've encountered, which makes it tough to dig up something new about him. It's just a good thing for us that, like nearly every other thing I write about, Krampus articles out there on the Internet seem to be mostly copied and pasted from Wikipedia in an attempt to drive search traffic to ad-infested blogs, which almost always means that I can research and write about the more obscure intricacies of frightening folklore.

Saint Nicholas threatening to beat a small child as Krampus stands behind with a pitchfork.
Look at who is holding the Yule Tide Beating Stick. Early 1900s card of Saint Nicholas and Krampus.

It also means that the topic is ripe for fiction opportunities.


Old Nick's New Tricks


Snow crunched under hefty black boots, leaving a fresh icy trail next to cloven hoof prints that disappeared into the dimly lit suburban streets.

A thick blanket of fresh powder rested on homes and cars, trees and shrubs, mailboxes and blinking lawn decorations, softening the sharp edges and angles of the entire neighborhood into rolling mounds and hills that sparkled in the moonlight. Scattered snowflakes hung in the air, suspended like a photo of a swirling snow globe. The two-story homes with short driveways and narrow yards huddled together so closely that it was impossible to tell where the Christmas lights of one ended and another began.

"Thou art late," a deep voice from a shadowed figure said from a rooftop.

"Oh, boo hoo hoo," Santa said as he took hold of the rope dangling by the front porch. "You know how hard it is to read green street signs with a red nose light? Things were easier when there weren't so many addresses." He grunted as he tugged the rope with both hands. "Or so many damned people." Santa sucked in his belly two sizes smaller and started to climb. When he reached the top, a fur-covered hand grasped his forearms and hoisted him onto the roof. "Krampus," Santa said with a nod.

"Nicholas," Krampus said, nodding back. "Wherefore not bringeth thy sl'd upon the roof?"

"Blitzen's got a stick up his ass from too many close calls with slick solar panels."

"Po'r creature." Krampus stepped into the pulsing lights of an inflatable nativity scene and scratched one of his horns with the tips of his obsidian claws. "What shalt we doth h're?"

"Beats me. I can't even make out street numbers. And all that light pollution from their gaudy garbage"—Santa motioned at a candy cane the size of a two-car garage that had toppled over, its light piercing through a foot of snow covering it—"makes it hard to see anything anyway. On top of that, no one leaves their porch lights on for Christmas because Amazon doesn't deliver. Ingrates." Santa sighed. "Here"—he withdrew a folded paper from his jolly jacket and shoved it at Krampus, sending a pocket of suspended snowflakes into a flurry of motion—"you try working the cursed thing for once."

"Thee knoweth I cannot." Krampus held up both hands, shaking his head. "Tis thy night." He reached into a burlap sack on his back and pulled out a bundle of birch twigs tied together with twine. "Bid me, who is't is naughty, and I shalt doth mine own job."

"Far as I'm concerned, they can all go to Hell." Santa snatched the bundle of twigs and started up the slope toward the roof's ridge. After a few steps, he stopped, his arms falling limply at his sides. The bundle of twigs dropped from his fingers and tumbled into the snow. "Does no one have a chimney anymore?"

"Thou art truly fusty, mine own cousin," Krampus slapped Santa's shoulder. "Waiteth til thee seeth what hags art flying 'round these days."

Santa grumbled, reaching into the front of his pants. A moment later, his hand emerged, gripping a long wooden handle with a thick steel wedge of a blade. "Better watch out." He chuckled, low and menacing, as he raised the axe overhead. "I'm not coming to town. I'm already here."


Well, that was fun. I banged out that piece of fiction one night to illustrate a few interesting points about Krampus mythology. Let's take a look.

Krampus: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

There have been many reimaginings of Krampus over the years, particularly in the past few decades of film and TV, but for the most part, they all depict Krampus as an anthropomorphic man with long animal-like fur, cloven hooves, and horns similar to a goat.

A very old photo showing a procession of men in white religious garb with a Krampus figure in tow.
That scythe in the back sure is something. 1910 mare and goat in the procession of St. Nicholas in Kunice, Czech Republic. Credit to Čenek Zibrt. Published by F. Šimáček, 1910.

The legends around Krampus come from Alpine folklore—the Alps in Europe—the tallest and largest mountain range that lies entirely within European boundaries. Evidence of humans living in the area goes back at least 5,000 years ago.

Map of Alps. Perconte (map), Hanno Sandvik (addition of borders), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Alps. Perconte (map), Hanno Sandvik (addition of borders), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The night of December 5th is known as "Krampusnacht." The word Krampusnacht comes from "Krampus" and "Nacht"—"Nacht" means "night" in German and Dutch. Here's how to pronounce "Krampusnacht" with an authentic German accent.

Krampusnacht, on December 5th, precedes The Feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6th. And, as you may already know or might have guessed, "Santa Claus" derives his name from Saint Nicholas of Myra. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children (and pawnbrokers, by the way). It is said that "little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas," but I suppose that's relative, considering he has a giant Wikipedia page. At this point, most people are probably aware that old tales of Santa Claus say that he visits every home at night and gives gifts to good children and lumps of coal to bad ones.

Saint Nicholas and Krampus smiling happily at each other as Saint Nicholas is probably considering who to send to Hell this year.
The chains you see sometimes pictured with Krampus represent the Catholic Church's subjugation of pagan devil-like figure, symbolizing Christian control over evil. Pictured here is Nikolaus happily considering which children to cast into the fires of Hell this year. Meanwhile, Krampus looks on with horror, trying to keep a smile on his face because he knows that Nikolaus is entirely unhinged. Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria. Believed to be from the early 20th century.

On the night of December 6th (I'm guessing after Saint Nicholas arrives fashionably late to the gift or coal party because Krampus showed up a day earlier), the two go around and visit people's homes together. Traditionally, Saint Nicholas gives good children modest gifts like fruit and nuts (sorry, new iPhones are "modest") and leaves dealing with the naughty kids to Krampus. Because of the whole mythology around Santa Claus keeping a list of naughty and nice children, Santa must be the boss of the duo and points Krampus at the bad kids so that Santa doesn't have to get his hands dirty.

The tall, lanky red figure of Krampus has caught a boy using a long tongue and is about to beat the boy with a bundle of sticks.
The similarities in the artistic depiction here between Krampus and the typical "Satan" figure are pretty obvious. Lithographed postcard with the number 542 by an anonymous artist from the Wiener Werkstätte. Created around 1911 and is referred to as "Krampus with child."

Krampus beats naughty children with birch rods, kidnaps them by shoving them into a sack, and then carries them away to torture them before drowning some, eating others alive, and simply dropping others off in Hell, where they burn for eternity. I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty harsh punishment for not raking the leaves or forgetting to wash the dishes one night. This entire thing raises the question of how precisely Santa determines naughty vs. nice. Naughty and nice, good and evil, these concepts are not universal. Not only that but "Saint Nicholas was recognized as a saint long before the Roman Catholic Church began regularizing canonization procedures in the late 10th century."

Saint Nicholas and Krampus visit a family. Saint Nick looks rather pleased with himself as he watches Krampus terrorize a small child.
I can't exactly tell what the children's father is holding, but it appears to be some kind of festive meat hook that he's about to suggest someone use on his kids for sleeping three minutes late that one day six months ago. Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria. Newspaper-illustration from 1896.

So, not even the Catholic Church, which, of course, is well known for its infallible moral compass, is in control of the whims of Saint Nicholas during his annual visit to pass judgment upon every child on earth. I've also wondered for a while if Santa Claus has a team of elves that keeps up with the everchanging laws surrounding what constitutes a "legal adult" because he seems to be only interested in judging children. And, if he doesn't keep up with the laws, is it possible that in some parts of the world, the local government has declared that a person is old enough to drink and vote, but Santa didn't get the memo and directs Krampus to drag them off to Hell because they were in the supermarket and covertly popped a grape in their mouth without paying for it?

More on that philosophical issue here: Can Santa Know Who's Naughty or Nice?

The tales of Krampus actually go back to longstanding pagan traditions from peoples in the Alps, which the Catholic Church tried unsuccessfully to stamp out, eventually relenting and instead incorporating some of the rituals and iconography into the Catholic Church's own holidays. You know, like they did with Christmas...and Easter...oh, and New Year's, Valentine's, Lent, the Feast of All Saints, and a bunch of other things. Did I mention wedding ceremonies?

Learn More About Krampus

Like I said at the beginning of this, Krampus is one of the more well-documented supernatural creatures I've encountered, so I'll just drop some links here for more reading:

Merry Sol Invictus, Everyone!

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