Krampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland and Hungary thought to punish children during the Yuletide season who had misbehaved, essentially the moral opposite of Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair.
Santa Claus is an amalgamation of several figures from the winter solstice, soaking up influences as varied as 16th Century English folk tales and Nordic mythology, specifically the God Odin, from whom he inherited the well-known long white beard. As Catholicism infiltrated Germanic Europe, these tales combined with more religious influences, including the Dutch character of Sinterklaas.
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In a somewhat similar vein, Krampus (from the Old German krampen meaning ‘claw’), took on many of the characteristics of the God Loki from Norse mythology, including the large horns on his head, as well as his predilection for mischief and slyness. Combined with other pre-Christian demonic lore, Krampus ultimately resembles the Devil himself in appearance. Though the Catholic church attempted to prevent any festivals involving goat-like presences, Krampus became entwined with the tradition of Saint Nicholas and the pair became traditional Christmas figures by the mid-17th Century, despite protestations by the Austrian government right up until the late 20th Century.
On December 5th, the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas (also known as Krampus Night or Krampusnacht), Krampus is said to roam the streets of Germanic Europe, punishing children for their wicked deeds of the previous year. He often appears carrying birch branches or whips to thrash the youngsters and bearing rusty chains, from which he has broken free, as well as a magic top hat and bells to signal his arrival. He also came armed with a sack or cart to carry back particularly naughty children back to local waterways to drown or to his lair to consume. Krampus is sometimes said to accompany Saint Nicholas on the 6th, one dispensing gifts and joy, the other, less so.
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Since the 1800’s, people across Europe has ‘celebrated’ Krampus by the giving of Krampus cards or Krampuskarten, usually bearing the legend, ‘Gruß vom Krampus’ (Greetings from the Krampus). Featuring humourous rhymes, Krampus is pictured ensnaring children and getting up to more saucy activities with the ladies of the parish he is visiting. In south-eastern Austria, locals exchange gold-painted bundles of sticks, which are displayed around the home to warn children as to the perils of not being well-behaved.
Krampus Runs or Krampuslauf occur in Austria, Germany Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic in the first week of December and see locals donning masks and costumes, so as to resemble Krampus, and chasing children through the streets whilst ‘playfully’ whipping women as they pass. Alcohol plays no small part in these festivities.
Krampus is also known as Kneckt Ruprecht and Black Peter. Across Germany he goes by the name of Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Hans Muff (of course, Hans Muff!), Bartel, Gumphinkel, Stoppklos, Black Pit or Knecht Ruprecht. Other names include Belzeniggl, Schmutzli, Rumpelklas, Drapp, Buzebergt, Hanstrapp and Le Père Fouettard.
In recent years, interest in the Germanic legend has begun to develop in the popular culture of North America and elsewhere, culminating in the 2015 release of dark comedy horror film Krampus, distributed widely by Universal. Director Michael Dougherty has stated that “The dark ancient origins of our holidays have always fascinated me.”
Other filmic appearances include:
- Night of the Krampus – 2013 horror film short.
- Krampus: The Christmas Devil – 2013 low budget horror film directed by Jason Hull. A 2016 sequel is already in pre-production.
- Krampus: The Reckoning – 2015 horror film about a strange child has a not so imaginary friend who is the dark companion of St. Nicholas.
- A Christmas Horror Story – 2015 anthology horror film. One of the interwoven stories features a greedy family who finds that their attempts to ingratiate themselves to a wealthy family member has brought about the wrath of Krampus.
- Krampus 2: The Devil Returns – 2016 sequel to Krampus: The Christmas Devil.
- Krampus: Unleashed – 2016 horror film written and directed by Robert Conway. In pursuit of a lost treasure, a group of fortune hunters mistakenly unearth an ancient demonic summoning stone that holds a terrible curse and awakens a timeless evil, the Krampus. After centuries of slumber, Krampus has awoken with a thirst that only blood will quench…
In animation, Krampus made an appearance way back in the 2004 Christmas episode of The Venture Bros; in a 2012 Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated episode titled “Wrath of the Krampus” and in the December 2012 episode of American Dad.
In 2014, an Image Comics series was launched with storylines by Brian Joines. Meanwhile, the January 2014 BroadSword Comics edition of Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose featured a comic strip themed ‘Night of the Krampus’.
There is also a growth in the availability of Krampus-themed books, cards, and novelty products available to buy (some are on this posting). With this upsurge in interest, it seems the folklore character’s profile will continue to develop further in years to come.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA with additional info by Adrian J Smith
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