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The History of Krampus

 
The History of Krampus

- By Jenna Maxwell

During the Christmas season, traditions differ all over the world. Commonly, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus, who comes all the way from the North Pole with his sleigh and reindeer to surprise children with presents. In Switzerland, Austria, and other European countries, there's another character associated with the Christmas season, and he's not nice like Santa Claus. He's known as Krampus, and he goes around looking for children who misbehave. Children fear Krampus, not just because of his scary appearance but also because legend has it that he terrorizes them, whips them with twigs, and stuffs them into baskets to whisk them away to his lair.

Krampus, also referred to as the Christmas Devil, is a character from European Alpine folklore. His ancient origins can be traced back thousands of years to pre-Christian times, when villagers across the European continent would dress up, parade, and perform plays as the horned goat man or Old Man Winter. These characters strongly resembled Krampus and Saint Nicholas as we know them today. Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany during the 11th century. By the 17th century, Krampus was made into his sidekick and became part of Christian winter celebrations.

Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated in European countries on December 6. Saint Nicholas is known to Europeans as a man who rides a white horse, holds a golden staff in his hand, and dresses in bishop's attire. In the United States, Saint Nicholas was unknown until the 19th century, when the first American Santa Claus emerged in New York City. He was supposed to be the American version of Saint Nicholas. However, instead of a white horse, Santa had a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and instead of dressing like a bishop, he wore a red suit. Also, Santa Claus didn't have an evil counterpart; Saint Nicholas on Horseback he just had elves that helped him disperse presents. Various European countries recognize both Saint Nicholas Day and Christmas. During Saint Nicholas Day, Saint Nicholas visits on his horse with Krampus by his side. During Christmas, Santa Claus visits in his sleigh with his elves. Even schools in Europe celebrate both holidays, much to the enjoyment of kids, who enjoy the many presents and sweets.

According to tradition, Krampus would go everywhere that Saint Nicholas went. His appearance alone was feared by many kids. Although he's sometimes portrayed as a sinister man dressed all in black, originally, folklore portrayed him as a beast-like creature that was half goat and half demon. Images of Krampus show a devil-like creature with horns on his head, a long tongue, and cloven hooves. On his back, he carries a wicker basket filled with unbreakable birch sticks that he uses to swat kids with if they misbehave. Some even have thought that Krampus ate kids. Krampus' appearance is often compared to Greek mythological creatures, such as fauns and satyrs. Other mythological characters similar to Krampus are Klaubauf, Pelznickel, Knecht, Black Peter, and Ruprecht.

Although Krampus is made out to be a devil-like creature that kids should fear, over time, his presence has become less fearful and often desired. To some, Saint Nicholas without Krampus is like Batman without Robin. The Saint Nicholas Day celebration in Europe is somewhat similar to that of Christmas in the United States. On December 6, kids place a shoe in front of the chimney at night. Some place a carrot in one shoe for Saint Nicholas' horse. The next day, kids check to see if a present is in the shoe. If the child had been misbehaving, a bunch of twigs, resembling Krampus' switches, will be in the shoe instead. Some schools invite Saint Nicholas and Krampus to visit with the kids. Each kid should shake hands with Saint Nicholas and disclose whether they've been good or bad. If a child was bad, Krampus might chase them all around the room in a playful manner. Although he might carry a bunch of switches, his basket for this type of occasion is typically filled with candy. On Saint Nicholas' order, Krampus might grab candy out of the basket and give a child a handful or throw it around the room for kids to grab. Krampus is now feared in an enjoyable way, and he has become a big part of this yearly celebration.

To learn more about Krampus, use the following resources:

  • St. Nicholas Biography - Find out who the real Saint Nicholas was and how his existence became the basis for Santa Claus.
  • Who Travels with St. Nicholas - Aside from Krampus, Saint Nicholas had several other travel companions. They often differed depending on the country where the celebration took place. Find out more about these travel companions on this page.
  • Who Was St. Nicholas? - Did you know that Saint Nicholas was a city patron, a pastor, a bishop, and a lawyer who considered himself a public servant? This article tells you more about the man behind this kid-favored holiday.
  • Celebrating Sinterklaas - Find out what happens during the Saint Nicholas celebration. Look at photos of the festivities and find out about the arrival of Saint Nicholas and the different types of traditional candy.

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