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Sunday, 6 December 2015

What is the Krampus?

Earlier this month the Christmas horror film Krampus released by Legendary Productions brought the attention of the folkloric demon to a wider audience. In Austria and Central Europe every year the Krampus pays a visit as a demonic version of Father Christmas. What exactly is the Krampus though and how did he come about?

Who the Krampus is
The Krampus is a half-man, half- goat creature with a long forked tongue, horns, one human foot and one goat foot (in traditional images of him) and carries a bundle of birch sticks. On December 5, Krampusnacht, he would go to the homes of children who have been bad, whip them with the bundle of birch sticks that he carries and puts them in a sack so he can take them to Hell for a year. On December 6, Nikolaustag, Father Christmas would come and give the good children presents. A National Geographic article (the link to it can be found below) claims that Krampus is believed to be the son of the Norse goddess Hel who presides over the dead realm of the same name.

Evolution of Krampus
Krampus can find its roots in pre-Christian Germanic folklore and Norse traditions as well. His possible mother being Hel from Norse mythology shows that his role in folklore originated prior to Christianity in Central Europe. His integration with a Christian festival has many parallels across Europe (and later the world) such as how the holiday of Samhain merged with Christian festivities to become Halloween and how Christmas celebrations took much inspiration from various winter solstice festivities. As Father Christmas started to become a popular figure in association with Christmas so did Krampus. This was particularly easy considering that many cultures already had a figure similar to Krampus. Germany for example had Knecht Ruprecht who was an old man with a beard who would visit children and get them to recite Christian catechisms. If they did it successfully he would give them gingerbread men but if they failed he would give them coal or put them in a sack and throw them in a river.  

During the 1800s Krampus became a widely distributed image around the Christmas season. Krampuskartens (like the images above) were widely distributed throughout the 1800s as greeting cards. In some areas he even usurped Santa Claus as the gift giver he became that popular. However, Krampus started to get a bad press with him being deemed too scary for children by parents and even the Catholic Church. He was even banned briefly in Austria! In 1934 fascists managed to take power under Engelbert Dollfuss and they banned Krampus. Austrian fascists aimed to ban anything deemed not to be Christian enough and with his origins in Norse and Germanic folklore this meant that celebrating Krampusnacht was banned. The Social Democrats (the socialists who were in power before being ousted by the fascists) had supported the celebration of Krampus so this was simply a further nail in the coffin for Krampus. After the Second World War the ban on Krampus was lifted.

Krampus remains a popular figure in Central Europe with many people each year dressing up as him and taking to the streets for a night of drinking and celebrating called Krampuslauf. Over the last few years in the United States Krampus has been making an appearance as an alternate celebration to the traditional Saint Nicholas. With the recent film portrayal of the 'Saint Nicholas's shadow' it is likely that many more people will be interested in celebrating Krampusnacht.

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