Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Welcome back good little boys and girls of Los Angeles. It is once again Astor, the patron saint of blogging and webbing at Speakeasy Tattoo, wishing you all a happy holiday. This will be the final blog of the year and as we prepare to round the sun once more, I am here to give you each and every one a little history on everyone’s favorite Yuletide character. Krampus. Obviously.
The moniker “Krampus” traces its origins to the Alpine and Slavic regions of Europe, where originally Krampus was a phrase used to refer to a category of creature, as opposed to an individual monster. Typically, the Krampus would be described as a bipedal beast, with cloven hooves, horns, a shaggy black coat, and fangs bracketing a long lolling tongue. In more Catholic regions, he would be wielding a pitchfork, however he is usually depicted brandishing a bushel of birch branches, lashed together to make the perfect switch for beating wayward children in need of holly-jolly corporal punishment. The yearly appearance of Krampus coincided with the winter celebration of Saint Nicholas, the patron Sant of Children who, on his feast day, was said to bring gifts of nuts, fruit, and small toys.
In his earliest incarnations, Krampus’s function was to act as a type of amorphous threat, a boogeyman invoked by parents warning children against misbehaving during the harsh alpine winters. Given his appearance and propensity for punishment, Krampus was meant to act as a satanic counterpart to Saint Nicholas’s Divinity. Come December, good children would receive gifts from Saint Nicholas, while bad children would receive a healthy serving of Texas Justice from the Krampus. Worse still, particularly disobedient children would be stolen by the beast, forced into his wicker basket, and then absconded with back to hell. Or eaten— sometimes the Krampus would just eat them. He’s not the biggest fan of gingerbread cookies. This, like so many other Christmas folk beliefs, instilled in children a strict sense of obedience during the time of scarcity surrounding the winter months, when food was scarce and nights were long.
By the mid 19th century Krampus began to be associated with the more secular Santa Claus. It was also during this time that the trope of the Krampus became a proper noun, referring to the creature as a singular entity as opposed to a hypothetical danger. In so doing, he became linked to the Christian holiday of Christmas as opposed to the whole winter season, or to the Saint’s feast day of December 5th.
Now there are claims that Krampus has some ancient pagan roots and is a hold-over figure from a pre-Christian solstice ritual meant to drive away the spirits of winter. This it would be awesome if true, but unfortunately according to most folklorists, it is unfounded. There is no evidence to support this narrative. Rather the belief that Krampus is some sort of pagan or Norse figure can trace its origins back to the early 20th century, when a cadre of socialist folklorists spread this false history in an attempt to cast aspersions on the church. According to them, the casting of Krampus as the villainous equivalent of Saint Nicholas was a conscious ploy by the church to sully ancient Nordic and German folk customs and in so doing consolidate power in those regions. Now, I have no love lost for the church, personally, but this seems a little unfair, especially since the church does a pretty good job sullying themselves and doesn’t need your help, comrades.
While Krampus has been tied to the celebration of St. Nicholas for some time, there is not definitive start that I have been able to find that points to the beginning of this relationship –though it appears to go back as far as at least the 1600’s when the first Krampusnacht, a celebration wherein a bunch of lads dress up as Krampus and go running around their home towns startling people, was held in Bavaria in 1582. So, Krampus is old, just not ancient. However that didn’t stop the Nazis from lapping up the idea and consequently publishing a well-circulated photo essay about the Krampus’s supposed Norse origins. According to them, Krampus was an ancient Germanic custom that was appropriated and demonized for its pagan roots. Ironically, the Third Reich would later ban Krampusnacht celebrations, as the rural frivolities were labeled inappropriate for a modern, industrialized nation like Germany to engage in. Because of course they did.
Prior to the ban under the Reich, it was popular to send red postcards depicting the creature during the holidays in parts of Germany and Austria-Hungry. The postcards typically depicted Krampus terrorizing children or otherwise accompanied by saint Nicholas or, interestingly, in the presence of semi-nude women. According to folklorists this is possibly a reference to the Austrian folk belief that being hit with Krampus’s switch brings fertility.
Although Krampus’s popularity waned during the 20th century, the beast has made something of a comeback in recent years, with more and more Krampusnacht celebrations being recorded every year. Perhaps the 21st century’s embracing of Krampus is tied into an attempt to push back against the hyper sanitized, over-commercialization of Christmas. Or, as an active move to preserve local folkloric and ritual customs in the wake of an ever increasingly globalized culture. Either way I doubt Krampus is going to fade back into relative obscurity any time soon. My own girlfriend, whose family is German and weird, was told stories of Krampus in her youth—only as long ago as the early 90s. That may seem like an eternity ago to some, but she would prefer to believe it’s not that distant a time. Her grandmother claimed that Krampus would lope around hither and thither, and stuff the ungrateful children into his wicker basket, beating them all the way… and year after year, he’d never empty out the basket, only cram more children in on top of the previous years’ harvests, down and down and down, generations of naughty children, pressed in on top of one another, squeezed tighter and tighter, for all eternity, each successive year more horrible than the last.
So, be good Los Angeles. Merry Christmas to all, and to all… guten nacht.