For most of us Christmas is a time of light and warmth, but in some parts of Europe the holiday also has a darker, sinister side. It involves claws, horns and children dragged to a terrifying underworld, and now it seems that it’s spreading across the globe. Will Christmas ever be the same again?
It’s on December 5 in Austria and certain other countries that this twisted take on the festive period begins. On this night, wicked children have to watch out, for something awful is waiting to drag them down to a subterranean lair.
The focal point of this darker side of Christmas is a terrifying beast. He has horns, fangs and he’s wreathed in chains. Even his name has roots in the German word for claw. This is a creature, in fact, that’s as far as you can get from the cuddly image of Santa.
He’s Krampus, a Germanic creation who, rather than giving candy like his counterpart St. Nicholas, spreads terror, violence and kidnapping. And he’s been around for centuries, dragging his chains and birch branches and looking for naughty children.
But to understand Krampus’ place at Christmas, we need to go back to a pre-Christian time when different winter rituals were performed. In Norse mythology Krampus was the son of Hel, the underworld’s guardian.
Despite his pagan roots, Krampus later became part of Christian traditions – against the wishes of the Catholic Church. Eventually the monster started to accompany St. Nicholas on his rounds, and while the latter dropped off presents for good children and small rods for the bad, the former’s methods were more extreme.
It’s not just the beatings that Krampus hands out that make him so scary. Indeed, the very worst children are snatched and stuffed into a sack. They’re then taken to Krampus’ version of the underworld. And once they arrive they’re either tortured until they repent, or they’re eaten.
That’s right, Krampus eats children. But then what would you expect from a demonic, 7-foot-tall, goat-like creature with one cloven hoof and one bear paw? Then there’s the whip he has for a tongue, his creepy bulging eyes and his pointed ears. Oh – and the matted fur and huge horns.
And if the idea of Krampus of old wasn’t terrifying enough, there’s even more to worry about now that he’s been revived. And not just in Europe, for Santa’s dark shadow has now made his way across the Atlantic.
Bear in mind that, back in the day, the powers that be tried to ban this horned, much-feared figure. Indeed, in the 12th century the Catholic Church tried to eradicate Krampus because of his obvious similarities to the devil.
Fast forward to the ’30s and, strangely, fascist groups were trying to quash Krampus. This was because for some reason they thought that he had been created by their political opponents. But the nightmarish legend somehow survived, and now he’s more popular than ever.
This is partly thanks to Krampuslauf, a festival where people dress as Krampus and, as part of a parade, jokingly chase children. And to say that the costumes are elaborate would be an understatement.
The celebrations hark back to an older pagan tradition that saw men dressing up to scare off the ghosts of winter. And it’s easy to see why the ghosts would be freaked out. Indeed, some costumes are more frightening than anything paranormal.
And it’s not just the resurrection of older traditions that have seen Krampus gaining fresh popularity. Indeed, the Christmas demon has also found a place in mainstream contemporary culture, partly thanks to a “bah, humbug” spirit.
There’s even a movie based on the Krampus legend as well as a comic book series. And a recent episode of American Dad featured the character, too. Krampus’ arrival in the U.S., then, shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
And, as it turns out, he’s been welcomed with open arms. Indeed, Krampus parties are already happening, while in Orlando, Florida there’s even a Krampusnacht festival. It isn’t, however, all fun and games – especially in Europe. One event, in fact, went too far with its recreation of Krampus’ more dramatic traditions.
At said festival in Austria, an actor portraying Krampus got a little too excited with his character’s sticks – and at least five teenagers were injured. One girl ended up with a cast on her arm; her beaten feet, meanwhile, were swollen and covered in blood.
Thankfully it’s not all darkness and hospitalization. With some Alpine towns having taken in refugees from Afghanistan and Syria, locals have taken the time to explain, especially to the children, that Krampus and his strange customs are actually nothing to be afraid of.
Krampus’ new-found popularity has given rise to a whole new industry. Indeed, now you can buy Krampus figurines, Krampus chocolates and even Krampus horns. The character, then, has very much boarded the commercialization train to festive stardom.
Krampus might never occupy the same space in our collective heart as his gift-bringing cohort, but there’s still something oddly magical about him. It’s hard, then, to begrudge his turn in the spotlight – if we did, we may be in for a thrashing.