The Anti-Christmas Spirit of Krampus

Krampus is back this Christmas and he's not bringing cookies. We look at the legend of the anti Claus himself.

Krampus the Anti-Claus

Holy shit, you better not pout. Allow us to give you a quick education on Krampus, the anti Claus of northern Europe. Remember the Heat Miser from the ’70s Rankin/Bass Christmas specials? Krampus is worse. This guy makes the Grinch look charitable.

Krampus is like a bad Santa Claus, only hungrier. He is the coal in the stocking of little Bavarian kids who were naughty during the year. Burgermeister Meisterburger must have had a Krampus ornament on his tree.

Krampus is a Christmas character, like Kris Kringle. But instead of feeding his diabetes with nibbles of butter cookies and milk, Krampus eats the heads of children as a Yuletide snack. Mm, mm, throw in a little Who Hash and we’ve got ourselves a new course after the antipasto.

In recent years it has looked like Krampus is the new holiday standard. So let’s look at the origins. Jolly Saint Nick scrunched his paunch down the chimney to empty bags of toys. Krampus would show up empty on Christmas Eve and leave with his bag filled with the bad kids. The pouters.

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Krampus dragging a young woman by her hair

Krampus comes from Germanic folklore. He looks like a demon and sticks bad kids in a bag. When the bag is full he brings the kids, not to Never Neverland or The Netherlands, but to the netherworlds.

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According to artistic representations, Krampus is hairy, with cloven hooves, horns, and a long pointed tongue. He carries around bells, chains and a very phallic birch branch. At some point in the Twentieth Century he found the S&M shops in Hamburg and traded the birch branch for a whip. 

Krampus comes the German word krampen, which means claw. I wonder if that’s where Sandy Claws comes from in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Krampus is just a demon who into his father’s business. His father was Hel in Norse mythology. Krampus is called Klaubauf in Austria, but also goes by the aliases Bartl, Bartel, Niglobartl, Wubartl, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Gumphinckel, and Krampusz.

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Krampus actually predates Santa, which would make him just a touch older than Mick Jagger, who’s a week younger than dirt. In 1975, anthropologist John J. Honigmann wrote that “Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century … Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays … Austrians … believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.”

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The Krampus figure is pre-Christian. In a 1958 article about the Krampus, Maurice Bruce wrote “There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.”

Whips and chains instead of tinsel and trains. Nutcrackers not included.

Krampus and children

The Krampuslauf is a run where local men traditionally try to get Krampus to drink some schnapps. On Dec. 5, which is also called Krampusnacht, but better known as the Eve of Saint Nicholas Day, while Nicky’s asleep, drunken old men in Austria, Romania, Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia dress up like Krampus and chase neighborhood kids off their lawns with rusty chains.

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On the morning of Nikolaustag, Dec. 6, German kids check to see if the shoes they left on the stoop have any presents in them. If their shoes are empty, the kids have to boil and eat the tongue while their parents point and laugh.

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For years, the Catholic Chuch tried to keep a lid on Krampus. It was lascivious and kind of seedy. Fascists weren’t too thrilled with it either. During World War II, the nasties and the brown shirts thought it had something to do with Social Democrats.

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Austria tried to make money off Krampus by selling chocolate-covered Krampuses (Krampii?), ornaments and toys.

In the early Twentieth Century, Krampus Christmas cards were a big seller from the norseland to Romania and Bavaria. Maybe not so much with the Hallmark crowd, but in Germany, where they had Sink-the-Bismarck cards, the mailman delivered rhymed cheer sneered by this hungry monster. If you look at the cards, Krampus seems to also have a thing for top-heavy women.

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Krampus is having a bit of a renaissance. American Dad ran an episode called “Minstrel Krampus.” Trick ’r Treat director Michael Dougherty brought us a major feature film called, appropriately enough, Krampus (read our review here), which he co-wrote with Todd Casey.

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William Shatner recently indulged in the unholy holiday spirits in the Krampus holiday anthology A Christmas Horror Story from directors Steven Hoban, Grant Harvey, and Brett Sullivan. Shatner played Dangerous Dan, a DJ pulling in some holiday overtime while Santa’s elves become zombie Krampuses. George Buza plays Santa Claus, at ground zero of a new epidemic. Kevin Smith had also been developing a feel-good holiday photoplay starring the curmudgeonly but cuddly Christmas character for a few years, known as Anti-Claus, but that fell by the wayside. Jim Henson Productions and Walden Media will be giving the monster a family friendly spin in Happy Krampus! The dark Christmas hero gets the pink slip from Santa, moves to New York and reinvents himself. He launches a PR attack trying to replace Christmas with Krampus Day.

So set a place for Krampus this Christmas. But hide the kids and the silverware, he’s got a bag.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.