Krampus: Origins of the Yuletide Monster

You better watch out, you better not cry, and you certainly must behave—or else face the brutal beating of the Krampus. Why does this demonic, horned Yuletide monster exist? This episode looks at the historical origins of Krampus in the winter festivals of the Alpine region, challenging the false claim that this monster came from pagan tradition, and traces its renewed popularity across the globe.

AIRED: December 15, 2021 | 0:08:38

- On cold, dark winter nights, you might catch a glimpse

of a horned figure stalking through the streets,

with a basket strapped to its back and a switch in hand,

the demonic Krampus isn't interested in giving out gifts,

but doling out brutal punishments.

Krampus is the dark foil to Saint Nicholas,

the miraculous Catholic bishop credited with bringing

small gifts of sweets, nuts, and fruit

to good little boys and girls in early December.

And yes, one of the inspirations behind

jolly old you know who.

But what are the origins of the demonic horned creature?

You might be surprised to learn this winter monster

isn't as old as you might have been led to believe.

And even more importantly, why invent a Yuletide character

that literally beats children into submission?

(dramatic music)

I'm Dr. Emily Zarca, and this is "Monstrum."

The Krampus's historical origins

are generally believed to have emerged

onto the Yuletide scene in Slavic and Austrian celebrations.

Winter festivals in the Alpine regions

of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, and Italy

all feature versions of this monstrous anti-Santa.

Though originally Krampus was really more

of a category of monster rather than

the name of an individual creature.

The word itself comes from either the middle German for claw

or the Bavarian word for something lifeless and dried out,

with plenty of regional variations.

Half goat, half demon Krampus are fanged

with cloven feet and often long pointed tongues.

The oldest and most traditional versions

have multiple sets of horns.

They may carry a pitchfork and a basket

to collect children in, and they always have

that switch in their hand, most often

one made of birch branches.

The better to beat you with, my dear.

Yup, that's what this charming monster does,

doles out corporal punishment to children who misbehave.

Krampus emerged in Alpine folklore

alongside celebrations of St. Nicholas.

At first, it was more of an idea,

an amorphous, threatening boogeyman

parents evoked to keep kids in line

when food was scarce and attention wavered

during the long dark nights of winter in the mountains.

Nice children received presence from St. Nick.

Naughty children received a birch branch spanking

from Krampus, or worse.

The most wickedly-behaved were shackled

and tossed into the monster's wooden basket

to be carried away to the fires of hell,

or, you know, eaten by the Krampus.

The traditions connecting Krampus and St. Nicholas

seem interwoven through time, despite

some conflicting versions of how they came to be associated.

There's evidence of performances that link the Krampus

to Satan in Jesuit theater, and the monster

frequently appears in Saint Nicholas plays.

So it is possible that the beast was constructed

to represent the opposite of divinity.

Detailed descriptions of Krampus only emerge

in the 19th century, when folklorists began recording

the costumes worn during Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run.

In the Alpine region, December 5th

marks a celebratory, and usually drunken,

parade in which people dressed as Krampus

walk through the streets, scaring bystanders

and chasing down the really unlucky ones.

Even if people dressed as Krampus

don't actually injure people, they are a symbolic threat

of violence and rebellion against decorum.

In some regions, Krampus troops stalk the streets

from November to Christmas.

These troops consist of multiple revelers,

and it's considered an honor, and often a rite of passage,

to don the horns.

In the oldest traditions of the Alpine region,

Krampus revelers would either blacken their faces,

don a dark false beard, and dress in dark clothing,

or they wore wooden masks and long fur coats,

sporting belts with large bells

and that switch in their hand, of course.

In Catholic areas where fear of the devil was stronger,

the costume included horns to highlight their evil nature.

Krampus masks are often called Larven,

from the Latin word larva that means both mask and ghost.

Traditional masks are grotesque, with exaggerated features

and gaping mouths, accented by massive animal horns,

usually multiple pairs from different animals.

The woodcarvers who craft these masks

are considered well-respected masters.

Also in the mid-19th century, the monster

became associated with Santa Claus,

the more secular version of Saint Nicholas.

Around this time is also where we see

the moniker Krampus enter.

In 1862, a newspaper in Budapest

was published under Krampus's name,

and in 1865, it published an image of Santa Claus

with Krampus lurking behind him,

solidifying the creature's appearance

and transferring the connection to the Christian holiday

of Christmas rather than the holy saint's feast day.

Claims that Krampus is derived from pagan traditions

intending to drive away winter and evil spirits

in an ancient fertility rite are unfounded.

In reality, there is no evidence for this.

Scholars found that the false pagan origin story of Krampus

was invented in the early 20th century

by socialist folklorists attempting to cast Christianity

as a practice that sullied ancient Nordic customs.

the Nazi party reinforced this false claim,

publishing a photo essay portraying the Krampus

as an ancient custom "banned for its pagan roots."

In reality, Krampus nights weren't recorded

until 1582 in the Bavarian town of Decen,

in passing reference under the name Percht.

The Perchtin are mischievous Alpine spirits

and the likely folkloric precursors to the Krampus.

Documents from the 17th and 18th centuries

show Salzburg archbishops trying to ban

the Krampus tradition, with little success.

Interestingly, these bans were not about the monster itself,

but were aimed at curbing the raucous celebrations

that accompanied them.

In the 19th century, the Krampuslauf tradition dwindled,

preserved only in a small number

of Austrian and German towns until the 1870s

as consumerism boomed.

More specifically, red postcards with illustrations

of the monster appeared in Austria-Hungary

in the later half of the century.

Austria's postal system became the first

to deliver postcards in 1867, making the sending

of Krampus cards in the late 1880s possible

and financially viable.

The cards became incredibly popular.

A nostologic reminder for Austrians and Germans

who moved from rural areas where Krampus runs were popular

to industrialize cities.

Unsurprisingly, these postcards often show

the horned monster punishing children,

or, in a seemingly bizarre twist,

accompanied by semi-naked women.

Perhaps because of these associations

with both youth and sexuality, in some parts of Austria,

children are told that being hit

with Krampus's switch brings fertility.

While globally Krampus's popularity suffered

from the early 20th century associations with socialism

and the Nazi Party, in the latter part of the century,

the demonic figure has made a comeback.

Since the turn of the 21st century,

Krampus events have become larger

and more numerous across the globe.

Whether this is due to her renewed interest

in preserving traditional regional customs

as globalization emerges, or a rebellious response

to the over-commodification and commercialization

of Christmas, the death metal version of Santa

is making a play to take back the winter holidays.

The internet's discovery of the 19th century Krampus cards

brought renewed interest to the monster.

In 2012, an episode of the "Scooby Doo:

Mystery Incorporated" cartoon focused on Krampus,

and that same year, Gerald Brom's book,

"Krampus the Yule Lord," further increased

the popularity of the monster, and connected him

to a false backstory in Nordic mythology

and made him an enemy of Santa Claus.

Movies, books, and other popular culture texts

in America have perpetuated the connection

between Santa and Krampus.

Horror films featuring the Krampus emerged around 2010,

and the monster has been a staple ever since.

The 2015 film "Krampus" plays on the Santa Claus-Krampus

connection explicitly, with Krampus coming down chimneys

wearing a red fur-trimmed coat and slaughtering people.

Commercialism, morbid fascination, reclamation.

Whatever draws people to Krampus allows tradition

to be shared and preserved.

In 2014, UNESCO even declared the Krampus play

of the town of and Oblarn in Styria

as vital to the cultural heritage of humanity,

which proves to me that it's not only the good guys

that get immortalized, the monsters

get their place in history too.

So this winter holiday season,

don't forget to play nice, boys and girls,

or you might get a visit from this Yuletide monster.


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