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In Austria we traditionally celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on 6th December. Having grown up believing that the Christkind, baby Jesus, delivers presents on Christmas Eve, Saint Nicholas is the closest to Santa Claus I will ever get. At home, the two were not that different. People would dress up as Saint Nicholas and visit schools or even homes. Much like Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas had a large book where he kept track of whether you had been naughty or nice. If you had been nice you got a bag of gifts, usually containing nuts, oranges, gingerbread, and chocolates. But if you had been naughty his companion, Krampus, would threaten you with his bundle of birch sticks. Even though the Krampus I encountered never actually whipped any of the children, the threat and playful whack with the birch was enough to drive home the message. Krampus was not to be trifled with, and the legend behind him is even more disturbing.
Who is Krampus?In terms of appearance, Krampus is half goat, half demon. He has a thick brown or black fur coat, cloven hooves, and horns, which usually come with a set of matching fangs and, depending on the region, a long forked tongue to make the horror (and childhood trauma) complete. He carries chains and bells, and the obligatory birch stick bundles to punish children with. Depending on the region, he might also carry a large jute bag. He uses this to carry away the most wicked children, either to drown them in the nearest river or to drag them to Hell. This belief is thought to date back to the time when the Moors raided the European coasts and stole people to be sold as slaves.
His name is derived from the German word Krampe, which today refers to a hog ring, but it originates from the Old High German chramph which meant krumm (bent, crooked). It is thought to refer to Krampus' claws. He roots date back to pre-Christian Germanic paganism. In Norse mythology, he is believed to be the son of Hel, goddess of the underworld, at least according to National Geographic, but I found no mention of him when reading about Hel. His origins might be hazy, but it comes as no surprise that this devilish creature came with its fair share of controversy. Naturally, the Catholic Church banned him, and even though the ban is no longer active, the chains are still said to symbolise the binding of the devil. Even the Austrian government and the WWII regime attempted to stop the tradition, but to this day Krampus remains a part of the Christmas season.
KrampusnachtAs I mentioned in the introduction, my own experience with Krampus was strictly as Saint Nicholas' companion, and though he had the birch sticks and a bag, the latter was strictly used to store the goodies Saint Nicholas would distribute.
In other parts of Europe the tradition differs. In some places Krampus and Saint Nicholas set out the night of the 5th December. Children leave shoes or boots outside their doors and in the morning they find them either full of sweets or full of coal.
Other places again host a Krampuslauf (Krampus Run) that same night, where locals dress up as Krampus and run through the streets scaring children, ringing their bells, and clanking their chains.
Why do we have Krampus?According to folklore, Krampus is Saint Nicholas' counterpart. Saint Nicholas, much like Santa, keeps track of a child's behaviour and if they have been wicked, he sends Krampus to punish them and/or drag them to Hell in his bag. Though my encounters with Krampus were comparatively tame, I had a huge respect of him. My parents did not use the Krampus threat all year round, but the nearer it came to Christmas, the more often Krampus' name was mentioned. It was a strong incentive to be good.
But why do we have this Christmas horror? I mentioned before that the origins of Krampus are quite hazy. Likely, he is a relic of pagan times. So many other Christmas traditions have been adapted from pagan times, including the fact that it is celebrated so near the winter solstice. Is Krampus just another part of that? A chance for people to dress up as demons to fight demons and drive out evil spirits, as they do at Halloween? Or is he a depiction of a horned deity of a past culture, often believed to be worshipped by witches?
My guess is that he is none of the above and yet embodies elements of all. Saint Nicholas was, among others, the patron saint of children. When slave traders raided the country (I'm thinking back to the Moors here) and kidnapped the locals, it is only natural that those left behind would demonise the raiders. Add to that an account of a drunk, freaked out, or overly pious villager and you have actual demons come to take away the children. It is possible that those left behind would turn to Saint Nicholas for support. Saint Nicholas became a light to fight the darkness that was the slave traders, and to this day he remains the light to Krampus' dark.
And yet Saint Nicholas has Krampus as his helper. This is where it becomes interesting and my writer's brain gets into overdrive. Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and repentant thieves. Perhaps Saint Nicholas did come to the aid of those living on the European coast. And perhaps the slave traders, sailors and merchants all, regretted their acts and became repentant thieves of children. So Saint Nicholas took pity in them. He gave them bells so they would never be able to sneak up on anyone again, bound them with chains as a reminder of their sins, and had them work for him. He was to treat the good children. They were to punish the wicked. They were less merciful than Saint Nicholas would have been, more direct in their approach. And sometimes, they got carried away....