The 13th Floor

The Anti-Claus is Coming to Town! A Brief History of Krampus

This story originally published on FEARnet.com on December 5, 2011, but I’m reposting it here — along with a few updates — in honor of everyone’s favorite holiday demon, as well as tonight’s theatrical premiere of KRAMPUS, the new horror film from genre favorite Michael Dougherty (TRICK ‘R TREAT).

Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo
Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo

We horror lovers pretty much celebrate the holidays like any of those “ordinary” people out there — each according to family traditions, personal beliefs, childhood nostalgia, or just a few days’ freedom from the office. But by now, most of you probably know there is a mythical holiday figure practically tailor-made for fans of the macabre. Still, there might be a few of you out there curious about the long and colorful history of this creepy character, who’s been enjoying a pop-culture resurgence this year.

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The legendary figure of Krampus — a literally devilish fellow often complete with horns, forked tail and cloven hooves — is apparently best buddies with St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who of course evolved into jolly old Santa Claus. According to tradition, St. Nicholas rewarded good little boys and girls with presents and sweets. But when it came to the naughty kids, instead of the standard lump of coal, Nick left the dirty work to his demonic counterpart, who would literally drag the little buggers to hell.

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Popular throughout much of Europe, Krampus is finally working his way into North American holiday festivities, especially among the horror community. Even the name “Krampus” seems ideal for the world of horror, since it’s derived from the old German word “Krampen,” meaning “Claw.” Just the idea that kids hoping for a present from St. Nick might also be cowering under their beds in fear of “The Claw” is beyond creepy, and I can’t believe most horror fans weren’t down with this dude a long time ago.

Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo
Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo

The origins of Krampus not only predate the Catholic feast of St. Nicholas, but may actually have originated before Christianity even reached Europe. In many cultures he was first portrayed as a primal beast-man, maybe even the European equivalent of the Bigfoot or Yeti legends. Once those regions began converting to Christianity, the character evolved into a fairytale used to scare children into behaving, so they’d get presents from “good cop” St. Nick and avoid a beating — or worse — from his “bad cop” partner. If that seems like a shitty parenting technique, remember that most of the fairy tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm were extremely gruesome in their original form, and were often meant to keep children out of real-life danger, and I dare you to look up the German children’s fable of “Struwwelpeter” for some legit scream-yourself-awake nightmares.

Image Credit: Universal Pictures
Image Credit: Universal Pictures

The best-known depictions of Krampus originated in the Germanic countries, and soon spread throughout most of Eastern Europe and even parts of Italy. Of course, with each different country and culture, the creature would take on different names, looks and habits… such as the Dutch legend “Belsnickel,” a hideous, troll-like creature who was also known as Kris Kringle — which today, of course, is just another common name for Santa Claus. I’m kinda skeeved out thinking how I once looked forward to this monstrosity breaking into my house during the wee hours of the night… if I’d known about this tradition when I was six years old, I’d have installed some major HOME ALONE-style booby traps all over the place. I mean, seriously… this is the guy who “sees you when you’re sleeping?”

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But assuming you escaped his wrath with your childhood (and limbs) intact, let’s slide up to the present day: In Europe, December 5th is the traditional Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), which in some communities becomes the December equivalent of a massive Halloween party — but with a very specific theme — i.e. lots of devil stuff. Hordes of elaborately-costumed revelers (many of whom look like a cross between Chewbacca and Tim Curry in LEGEND) take to the streets with torches, pitchforks, scythes and other nasty-looking implements, rattling chains, ringing bells and setting off fireworks, all to commemorate the arrival of a mythical monster who steals children in the night.

Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo
Image Credit: iStock/Dario Tommaseo

By now, Krampus festivities have migrated to many large cities in North America, often coinciding with the night before Christmas instead of St. Nicholas’ Eve… or just the entire month of December, which is cool. Along with horror fans who have taken the opportunity to create some amazing Krampus costumes, masks and artwork, many members of the fetish and BDSM culture have also embraced the more adult-oriented aspects of the character — who has often been depicted on German postcards as having a fondness for spanking young ladies (a tradition called “birching”), and comes ready with his own supply of whips and chains. Yes, we’re talking way kinkier concepts than that “Santa’s Little Helper” costume you ordered from Frederick’s of Hollywood.

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Now that you’ve indulged my little history lesson, I’m hoping you might join me in planning your own crazy Krampus holiday traditions (imagine the decorating possibilities) and beat those post-Halloween blues. You can get plenty of ideas by visiting the website Krampus.com, a.k.a. “Home of the Xmas Devil,” where you can find tons of images, videos, Krampusnacht event postings, and e-cards based on early 20th-century designs. The same vintage artwork adorns thousands of DIY decorations and party favors (Etsy is crawling with them this year), and is featured in a classy collection of greeting cards and a large-format Krampus Sticker Book.

Just think… another golden opportunity to scare the Kringle Krap out of your neighbors again!

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