Tonight is Krampusnacht – the Night of Krampus, celebrated traditionally throughout Europe, and still celebrated in Austria and other areas of central Europe.
Who is Krampus, though, and what is so special about the Krampusnacht holiday?
Krampusnacht begins the season of mummery, the ancient practice of roaming the streets, dancing, singing, and making merry – which historically has meant making mischief. Today, what most people know of mummery has been reduced to the idea of caroling – going door to door singing winter holiday songs – and most people don’t even do that any more. Once, similar practices took place throughout the dead of winter, and they were much more elaborate and diverse than the thin remnants of Christmas carols suggest.
On the night of December 5, Krampusnacht, where it is celebrated, people create elaborate costumes, including hand carved wooden masks, dress up as Krampus, and roam the night, playing tricks, breaking rules, and drinking a great deal of alcohol. The costumes feature mishapen faces with long red tongues and prominent horns. Chains often bound the wrists of the Krampus figures, which sometimes carry bundles of switches. The bodies of the Krampus costumes are covered in dark fur.
In traditional depictions of Krampus, there is often a tail. The legs of Krampus are like those of a goat, with cloven hooves.
The identity of Krampus is up for debate. Some say that Krampus is a “devil”. That’s a superficial answer that’s founded in the recent history of Krampus.
This recent Krampus lore is thoroughly Christian, and in it, Krampus is described as thoroughly evil. He’s a servant of Satan, if not Satan himself. However, Krampus is also a servant of Santa —- Santa / Satan.
In his Christian identity, Krampus reflects the dark side of Santa Claus, the Kris Kringle maniac who doesn’t just withhold presents from naughty children, but carries them off to Hell in a barrel hoisted onto his back. Krampus was split off from Santa Claus so that Claus could become more beloved, playing the good cop to Krampus’s bad cop.
Still, the two are linked. More than working side by side, Santa Claus and Krampus share a name. Ever wonder how St. Nicholas could get the name Santa Claus? One story says that Santa Claus is none other than Krampus. The name Krampus is derived from the old German word for claws, and in his punishing aspect, Santa Claws was to be feared.
Look further back than Christianity, though, and you’ll see that there’s much more subtlety in Krampus than mere evil allows. Consider the idea that Krampus takes children to Hell, for instance. “Hell” is not, in its origin, a place. “Hell” is Hel, a divine figure from Norse mythology – and the daughter of Loki.
Loki was the Norse trickster god, an elevated frost giant. In the graphic above, Loki is shown on the left, wearing green. Note the big horns, much like those of Krampus. Loki is one manifestation of the mythological motif of the Horned God. The two sometimes share the trident as a prop.
Another motif of the Horned God is the Greek satyr, pictured on the right. The satyr has horns, like Krampus, and shares the goatish bottom half as well.
In the center of the satyr and Loki, Krampus stands. In form, he’s something in between the two. All these figures represent mischevious spirits of nature that resist obeying the laws of human civilization. They don’t obey human morality, but they’re not really evil. They’re apart from that.
They’re also apart from Christianity. They predate the Christian religion by thousands, if not tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years.
Krampus is often described as a spirit of Christmas, but in truth, the character of Krampus is deeper than Christmas. Krampus is a part of the ancient Yule holiday that is the true source of Christmas, and has meaning that clearly has nothing to do with Jesus.
In the United States of America, Christmas is increasingly becoming a holiday that isn’t linked to Christianity for most people. There are still many who pretend that the birthday of Jesus was really on December 25, just coincidentally the pagan Roman date of Sol Invictus and the birthday of the Persian savior Mithras. Larger and larger numbers of Americans, though, are contributing to the re-paganization of Christmas, either consciously or unconsciously. They’re bringing back the old customs of the Yule season and casting aside the facade of stories about the baby Jesus.
In this larger context, Krampus is beginning to creep his way into American celebrations of the winter holidays. Let’s face it – though Santa Claus is nice for kids, if you really want to engage in some Yuletide revelry, you need someone like Krampus along for the ride.
If you’re curious about the idea of Krampusing your Christmas, here are a few gifts that you can give to family members to encourage them to find a place for the old trickster god.