Krampus Night or Krampusnacht takes place on 5 December. According to Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as ” hairy with cloven hooves and fangs, with a tongue that lolls out, sort of half goat, half demon” , who during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved. In contrast to Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts, Krampus supplies coal and ruten bundles to naughty children. Krampus is one of a number of Companions of Saint Nicholas in regions of Europe. The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated a pre-Christian origin for the figure. In many parts of Croatia, Krampus is described as a devil wearing a cloth sack around his waist and chains around his neck, ankles, and wrists.
The Saint Nicholas festival incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays. Many European folklorists, have also written on the subject, many “heathen” elements are also blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil. By the 17th century Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations with St Nicholas. Countries of the former Habsburg Empire have largely borrowed the tradition of Krampus accompanying St Nicholas on 5 December from Austria.
In the aftermath of the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Krampus tradition was prohibited by the Dollfuss regime under the Fatherland’s Front (Vaterländische Front) and the Christian Social Party. In the 1950s, the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus Is an Evil Man”. Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred and continues today. The Krampus tradition is being revived in Bavaria as well, along with a local artistic tradition of hand-carved wooden masks. There has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children.
Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes and ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children. The ruten may have had significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites. The birch branches are replaced with a whip in some representations. Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a basket strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. Some of the older versions mention naughty children being put in the bag and being taken. It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps. Some ceremonies include the Perchten, another pagan spirit of Germanic folklore although the Perchten are properly associated with the period between winter solstice and 6 January.
Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus since the 1800s. Sometimes introduced with Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from the Krampus), the cards usually have humorous rhymes and poems. Krampus is often featured looming menacingly over children. He is also shown as having one human foot and one cloven hoof. In some, Krampus has sexual overtones; he is pictured pursuing buxom women.Over time, the representation of Krampus in the cards has changed; older versions have a more frightening Krampus, while modern versions have a cuter, more Cupid-like creature. Krampus has also adorned postcards and candy containers.
The Ruten bundles are presented by Krampus to families. The twigs are painted gold and displayed year-round in the house—a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. In smaller, more isolated villages, the figure has other beastly companions, such as the antlered “wild man” figures, and St Nicholas is nowhere to be seen. These Styrian companions of Krampus are called Schabmänner or Rauhen. A toned-down version of Krampus is also part of the popular Christmas markets in Austrian urban centres like Salzburg. In these, more tourist-friendly interpretations, Krampus is more humorous than fearsome. Similar figures are recorded in Europe. Klaubauf Austria, while Bartl or Bartel, Niglobartl, and Wubartl are used in the southern part of the country. In most parts of Slovenia, whose culture was greatly affected by Austrian culture, Krampus is called parkelj and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian form of St. Nicholas. As a part of a tradition, when a child receives a gift from St. Nicholas he is given a golden branch to represent his good deeds throughout the year; however, if the child has misbehaved, Krampus will take the gifts for himself and leave only a silver branch to represent the child’s bad acts.
Costumed characters are a central part of all Krampus celebrations. These characters include: Krampus, Saint Nikolaus, the woodsman, angels, and the old woman. As Krampus is half-goat and half-demon, the costume normally shares certain primary elements such as: a fur suit, horns, demon mask, and hooves. Props commonly used are; bells, a birch switch, basket worn on the back, chains, walking staff, and a horse hair or hemp flogger. The most traditional Krampus costumes are made from goat/sheep skins, animal horns, and hand carved masks. More often they are made with modern and less costly materials, such as: fake fur and latex masks.
Multiple Krampus related celebrations are also held in cities across North America. Krampus has also been immortalized in media including print (i.e. Krampus: The Yule Lord, a 2012 novel by Gerald Brom, television- both live action (“A Krampus Carol”, a 2012 episode of The League and animation (“A Very Venture Christmas”, a 2004 episode of The Venture Bros, a video games (CarnEvil, a 1998 arcade game, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a 2014 video game and film Krampus, a 2015 Christmas comedy horror movie.