The legend of Krampus is a fascinating one… On December 5th (tonight) is Krampusnacht. Krampus is a frightening creature who comes out to roam the streets in Austria. He is a centuries old tradition which has roots back to the Norse god Hel. Krampus is believed to be Hel’s son and is depicted as half-goat, half-demon. Krampus is the sinister counterpart to Saint Nicholas (who is celebrated on December 6). On the evening before Saint Nicholas Day, Krampus comes out to spook children and visit them if they have misbehaved. Beyond spooking children, Krampus is a fascinating tradition as he is the counterpart to Saint Nicholas goodness; without evil, there is not goodness, without darkness, there is not light… They are balanced figures.
“Krampus Runs” as they are called have become increasingly popular across Austria. The tradition occurs across Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Men come together and don traditional Krampus costumes of hand carved wooden masks and suits made of sheep or goatskin with cowbells attached. Krampus usually runs through the streets with sticks and a sack. The idea is that Krampus will come to find you if you have been naughty. The more recent emergence of the Krampus tradition has merged together Krampus with the concept of “Perchten,” a Pagan festival.
My mother’s memories of Krampus in Austria as a child are similar to the first images in this blogpost and are less frightening than the current representations of Krampus… Perchten first appeared in the 16th century and the Catholic Church attempted to ban the customs. The meaning of Perchten was to ward off the bad spirits of winter; the Perchten costumes below are more reminiscent of the contemporary images of Krampus, which are more extreme than the classical images of Krampus to say the least. Contemporary Krampus has become a truly fear inducing image. There is, however, charm that comes with the tale of Krampus. For example, it is a common custom to exchange “Krampus Cards” by mail which can be kitschy in style and include images of pinup art of women. In those cards, you can express your approval or disapproval of a person in a poem like way. Krampus is not all about fear! Krampus is a reminder of the goodness in this world and to appreciate it. That is the traditional takeaway. Krampus runs have become social opportunities for men as well. While Krampus may have evolved to appear intensely scary, the Krampus tradition and Krampusnacht remains alive for a reason. Our spirits seek balance and an understanding of that balance is exemplified in the overt naughtiness of Krampus and the sincere goodness of Saint Nicholas.