By Ian Wilson
Word Count: 576
Summary: An article on the history and celebration of Krampusnacht, the eve of St. Nicholas Day.
In British and American culture, Christmas is a time of joy, family gatherings, food and exchanging of gifts, embodied by the folkloric bringer of gifts Santa Claus, or as he is known in Britain, Father Christmas. However, there is a shadow lurking behind jolly old Saint Nick. A dark figure, usually named in hushed tones around the hearth; Krampus.
First, a bit of background. The custom of giving gifts on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve is something of a recent British/North American innovation. In Continental Europe, it is more common to give gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, thus the association of St. Nicholas, the real life “Santa Claus” with Christmas. In places like Germany and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is said to come on St. Nicholas’ Day to bring gifts to good children. In some traditions, he gives a brush or a stick to the bad children. In other traditions, something much more sinister.
On the night of December 5, known as Krampusnacht (Krampus-night) in German speaking countries, a horned demon is said to wander down from his cave in the mountain forests of Central Europe to punish bad children. He appears as a hairy, half-man half-goat demonic figure, worthy to grace the parapets of any Gothic Cathedral. He brings with him a bundle of sticks to beat the naughty children into behaving. The especially bad ones he shoves in his sack to carry back to his forest lair. Of course, St. Nicholas can only put up with this for so long before sending Krampus back to the forest for another year.
So you’re probably wondering why on earth any sane parent would tell their children about a monster that sounds like something out of a Metal song right before Christmas. The simple answer is to keep their kids in line by scaring them to death, but that is just too simple to satisfy me. It’s possible Krampus may have a more interesting origin and purpose.
Krampusnacht probably has its roots in ancient paganism, as old as the hills. The idea of a horned monster is common in many European cultures, and many suspect it dates back over 10,000 years. Krampus lives in the forest; not unlike the trolls of Scandinavia, or the familiar Big Bad Wolf. He fills the same folkloric niche; a monster to frighten children into good behavior, or to keep them away from things.
In northern Europe, the forest is an untamed, dangerous place. This is where monsters dwell. Krampus is another in a long list of monsters supposedly prowling the woods at night. They represent the ultimate “other”. They were totally outside of normal, civilized society. For one night out of the year, Krampus is allowed to enter the human world in order to reinforce discipline and societal norms. Therefore, Krampus is a necessary evil.
Today, Krampusnacht has become almost like Halloween. People dressed as horned demons with sticks parade through the streets, frightening children and unsuspecting tourists. It’s one night of insanity, where everyone can let their crazy out, before going back to the humdrum of normal life the next day. Maybe Krampus is just a way for people to let their hair down and have some fun before the cold sets in.
So in my mind, Krampus is more than just a fairytale invented to frighten children. He is a figure of myth, who exists to reinforce civilized behavior simply by being its polar opposite.