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What is the Krampus?

Updated on December 30, 2013
Krampus visiting with St. Nicholas.  (Yikes!)
Krampus visiting with St. Nicholas. (Yikes!)
Christmas Card!
Christmas Card!

by Christine B.

For those of us who grew up in the United States, at Christmas we think of the jolly Santa Claus or old St. Nicholas being the gift-giving spirit of Christmas. But if one grew up in Germany, there would be another traditional Christmas visitor that was not so jolly. The Krampus was thought of as the “Anti-Santa” and children were told if they were not good they would be punished by this scary, beast-like creature. The legend is that the Krampus would capture particularly naughty children, put them in his sack, and then take them back to his lair.

Instead of arriving on Christmas Eve as Santa does, the Krampus roams the streets of Eastern Europe on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, rattling chains and bells to frighten children.

The Krampus was often featured on holiday greeting cards like the one on the right. The tradition goes back to pre-Christian times. Masked “devils” causing havoc and scaring children and adults alike have been found in German writings of the sixteenth century and similar characters have also appeared in medieval church plays. Krampus creatures persisted throughout European folklore into the 17th century, connecting it to Christian winter events, including St. Nicholas Day.

Finally in the 20th century the Austrian governments began to discourage the practice of the Krampus, and the tradition was prohibited by the Austrian government. The government actually created and distributed pamphlets entitled, “Krampus is an Evil Man,” in an attempt to convince the people that this tradition was not appropriate for children. (Dah!) However, traditions don’t die easily, and Krampus celebrations continue to the present day.

The Krampus is also known by several different names, depending on location. Throughout Austria it might be called Klaubauf or Bartl or Bartel, Niglobartl, and Wubartl . In southern German it is referred to as Pelzebock or Pelznickel, and in Silesia it is called, Gumphincke. In Switzerland they call him Schmutzli and in Hungary he is Krampusz (often used to refer to an entire race of these creatures).

It is difficult for us in American to understand a Christmas tradition that would involve scaring children into behaving, however the Europeans seem to think it works for them.

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