Gruß vom Krampus, or “greetings from Krampus!” With the winter holidays upon us, I thought I’d offer another seasonal highlight for the Folklore Files, a series of small features on myths and legends, many of which serve as inspiration in my work.
In Central European and Alpine folklore, Krampus is a goat demon hybrid and a counterpart to the generous Saint Nicholas. While St. Nick brings oranges, walnuts, and other small tokens to well-behaved children, Krampus visits homes on the night of December 5th (Krampusnacht) to punish children who have misbehaved, beating them with birch rods. Thrashing his iron chains (likely an allusion to the Christian devil), Krampus has an almost theatrically evil aura about him. (And yes, Krampus is traditionally male, though some representations of Frau Perchta or Berchta often depict her as looking rather Krampus-like.)
Though Krampus has risen to popularity in the past decade, inspiring films and numerous pop culture references, he seems to have drifted out of the public consciousness for the better part of the century, last peaking in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is from this era that we find some of my favorite illustrations of this beastie, including…
What I find most interesting about Krampus is the blatant coopting of pre-Christian and Pagan iconography. The Celtic horned god Cernunnos served as inspiration for the Christian antichrist and featured heavily in early Christian iconography, and the ancient Greek god Pan sported antlers and a goat’s hindquarters, rather like Krampus and some depictions of the Christian devil. By quite literally demonizing the horned dieties of other belief systems, Christianity and its subsequent folklore used this dualism of good (St. Nick brings presents!) and evil (Krampus will beat you!) to enforce and maintain cultural dominance.
This coopting is forefront in my mind when I think about the overblown fears that I have heard from customers, worries about “cancel culture” and “political correctness” that seem to dominate much of the public discourse about the winter holiday season. Really, I’ve heard that I was trying to “cancel Christmas” when I wish folks a happy holiday season! And it is indeed a season full of holidays— from Hanukkah to Bodhi Day to Yule to Ōmisoka and many more, there are millions upon millions of people celebrating differing beliefs in the last month of the year. And the ironic thing is, the majority of these holidays share, more often than not, similar parables, similar traditions, and similar hopes for the joy and safety of ones people. So I implore folks, when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it is in an effort to be inclusive… there’s no need for bluster or beating them with birch rods.
Are you familiar with stories of Krampus? Do you have a favorite holiday season myth or story? Share yours in the comments!
Did you enjoy this feature? Check out other entries in the Folklore Files…