Krampus: Santa’s Evil Counterpart

“A person has done evil, so another person, or a group of people, in order to fight this evil, cannot think of anything better than to create another evil, which they call punishment.” —Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom

In A Nutshell

When we think of Christmas, we think of snow white hills, crackling fires, brightly wrapped presents, the scent of pine and turkey—all warm and happy thoughts. However, it is not so with all Christmas symbols. Whereas kindly, round-bellied, jolly ole St. Nick distributes treats and toys to all the good children, the horn-bearing and fanged Krampus whips children with birch sticks and hauls them down to his underworld lair. Condemned by the Catholic Church for many years, Krampus the Christmas Devil (the son of the Norse God Hel) is making quite the comeback not only in Europe but in the US as well.

The Whole Bushel

When we think of Christmas, rarely do we conjure up images of the Norse underworld Helheim, but the German Christmas tradition of St. Nicholas Day ends in Krampusnacht which is a night ruled by Krampus, the son of the Norse Goddess Hel. Hel is the ruler of Helheim, the Norse Underworld, and she is anything but pretty: “an ugly half-dead hag with gangrene legs and a hideous face.” She was so ugly that Odin, the God of Gods, banished her to the Underworld for being ugly. Unlike our visions of hell, the Norse hell is a cold and damp place filled with all those that were considered unworthy in Viking standards. Either way hel is hell and no one wants to go there. Enter Krampus.

In pagan time, the winter solstice was celebrated by getting dressed up as animals and mythological creatures and then parading and dancing around as these mythological creatures; the most common figures that were represented were Old Man Winter (who over time, evolved into the red-garbed jolly fellow we know as St. Nicholas or Santa) and the horned goat man who represented the devil (or in this case Krampus as a form of a devil). So, Krampus is the son of the Goddess Hel, ruler of the Underworld and his main job is to, once a year, punish the naughty children.

Article Continued Below

On December 6, German children anxiously check to see if kindly Old St. Nicholas has left them a treat, for good behavior or a lump of coal, for bad behavior. (I read somewhere that the lump of coal may not actually have represented the child being bad, rather that the child was poor and a lump of coal was all that could be given, and that this coal was in fact treasured by children as it meant warmth; this would fit in perfectly with the role that Krampus plays on December 6.)

As the day of December 6 turns to night, Krampusnacht begins. Krampus is as ugly as his mother, simply terrifying. The large, horned devil carries a switch of birch sticks or rusty chains that he uses to whip the naughty kids into the underworld; given the choice I think we would all much rather have the coal.

For many years the Catholic Church stomped its foot right down on Krampus, and he faded into the background. Instead of going to Hell, the naughty children got their lump of coal. However, one cannot keep devils down forever, and Krampus has returned.

On December 6, all across Europe, men, women and children gather around for the Krampuslauf (the Krampus parade) where people are chased through the streets by the devils in the parade. It’s quite the sight to see: horned devil men, crazed witches, red-eyed monsters all running through the streets, poking prodding, teasing, and taunting all those who were brave enough to come out and see them. Not only has Krampus returned to Europe, but he is also emerging in North America, even appearing on the show Supernatural—maybe we should organize a parade!

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: Mathias Kabel
National Geographic: Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil
Hel: Underworld Ice Queen
Krampus in Osttirol 2012 (video)

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!