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.
- 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?
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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