So it’s that time of year again when families gather round the Christmas tree and children open their presents. Christmas has, of course, both pagan and Christian elements with many countries contributing various legends and traditions, for example, Sinterklaas from the Netherlands and Christmas trees and Yule logs from Germany. One of the less well-known but most striking elements is Krampus, a companion of Saint Nicholas. While Nicholas rewards the children who have been well-behaved with a gift, Krampus most definitely punishes those who have misbehaved.
Appearing across Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, South Tyrol and parts of Northern Italy, Krampus is a large horned half-goat half demon. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long, scarlet pointed tongue lolls out of his mouth and he has fangs. He carries a bundle of birch branches, a Ruten, and a set of long chains. He also carried a sack or wicker basket on his back.
Krampus first appears on 5 December on Krampusnacht the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. He roams the towns and villages seeking out naughty children. Sometimes bells can be heard in the night warning children to mend their ways. He can then reappear a week later and those children who are still badly behaved may receive a swipe from his ruten. The following week he returns of the last time and those who remain stubbornly badly behaved may be taken off in his sack or basket never to be seen again.
The earliest depictions of Krampus almost always show him with the ruten, a phallic symbol that also has connections with pagan initiation rituals. Unable to suppress Krampus the medieval church conflated him with the devil and images from that period show the addition of chains symbolising the binding of the Devil by the Church. However, Krampus remained an important figure and by the 17th century Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by pairing Krampus with St Nicholas.
In Styria, the Krampus gives Ruten bundles to families just after Christmas. These are painted and displayed year-round in the house as a reminder to children to behave. In Udine, the Krampus sleeps in caves the year round until December when he awakes and comes out and chases badly behaved children and whips them on the legs with the Ruten unless they repent of their bad behaviour and recite a prayer. In Croatia, children receive gifts and a golden twig to represent their good behaviour throughout the year. If the child has misbehaved however, Krampus will take the gifts for himself and leave only a silver twig to represent the child’s bad acts.
So do remember to behave this year, or else, look out for Krampus!
Merry Christmas, everyone!