If you haven’t heard of Krampus, the demon-like half-goat of Austrian folklore, then you haven’t been paying attention. The scary counterpart to St. Nicholas—Krampus punishes naughty children by beating them or dragging them to his lair, or even to hell—has already appeared on the Colbert Report, starred in a comic book, and inspired parties and parades across the U.S. He’s even the subject of a feature film (though he’s also appeared in multiple low-budget movies).
Why all the sudden attention in a country where he’s never been widely recognized? Art director, graphic designer, and big man on Krampus Monte Beauchamp thinks that he deserves a lot of the credit. After a collector introduced him to Krampus postcards from the 19th and 20th centuries, Beauchamp published some in two issues of his magazine Blab!, and followed that with two books of Krampus cards in 2004 and 2010.
Soon after his first book came out, Beauchamp got a call from a gallery director in Santa Monica, California, who wanted to coordinate an exhibit of artistic interpretations of Krampus cards.
“The show was such a great success that he invited me to start curating the Krampus shows,” he says.
Around the same time, Beauchamp’s friend organized a theatrical Krampus club in L.A. From there, “it just kind of started snowballing,” he says. Since then, Beauchamp’s been contacted by the show Supernatural, the people behind Anthony Bourdain’s A Krampus Carol, and others who are interested in licensing the Krampus images in his books.
So yes, Virginia, there is a Krampus. But where did he come from?
GRUSS VOM KRAMPUS
Krampus isn’t the only menacing counterpart to St. Nicholas. Although parts of Germany celebrate Krampus, other Germanic regions have Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht. France has Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard, and the Netherlands has the controversial Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter (which involves blackface).
These figures date back to pagan celebrations of December 22, the longest night of the year, that were later adopted for Christmas. Together, the Krampus-like figures and the bishop St. Nicholas—a more austere version of the American Santa Claus—held a kind of judgment day for children, where the punishments for being naughty were much more severe than a lump of coal.
Krampus ensnares a child with his famously long tongue in this Viennese card, dated around 1911. Traditionally, he held a bundle of birch sticks with which to whip naughty children. - PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGNO, GETTY
Manufacturers started to commercialize Krampus after 1890, when the Austrian government relinquished control over the nation’s postcard production, causing the industry to flourish. Between then and World War I, German companies sold Krampus Christmas cards in Germany, Austria, and other countries, often with slogans like “Gruss vom Krampus” (Greetings from Krampus) or “Brav Sein” (Be Good).
The cards for kids featured images of a scary Krampus frightening children, beating them, or taking them away, usually in a pouch on his back. Often these children were screaming or crying. Beauchamp says that as early as 1903 or 1904, adult cards also began to appear. Although some showed Krampus punishing adults, others portrayed Krampus as a silly figure carrying women away, or even as a romantic suitor.
These adult cards seem to portray Krampus as kitsch or ironic long before Americans held their first Krampus bar crawl, but Beauchamp thinks that manufacturing Krampus cards for children and adults was likely just a way for companies to sell more of them.
“Bottom line is postcards in Germany were a huge market,” he says. “I think this is why they started doing scenarios with women.”
THE EVOLUTION OF CHRISTMAS
In Austria and parts of Germany, people still dress up as Krampus to scare children on Krampusnacht (“Krampus night,” traditionally held on December 5), as they did in the 19th century; but the Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”), in which men get drunk and run through the streets in frightening costumes, is, obviously, mainly for the grownups. In the U.S., most celebrations of Krampus are also kind of like drunken dress-up days for adults—which, ironically, are more similar to an older type of American Christmas, before the holiday became more focused on kids and presents for kids.
“For most people, before the 1800s, Christmas was not a domestic quiet holiday,” says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Battle for Christmas. “It was a holiday that was characterized by boisterous revelry. It was sort of like a combination of Halloween and New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras.”
These early celebrations often involved costumed “mummers,” who went from door to door demanding alcohol, and threatened to make trouble if they didn’t get it. Kids today participate in a watered-down version of this when they go trick-or-treating on Halloween.
“How the different holidays sort of crossover … I think that’s a very interesting feature,” says Matthew Souzis, webmaster for krampus.com. “I’ve always pitched Krampusnacht as a sort of cross between Halloween and Christmas.”
As celebrations of Christmas change, it’s not hard to imagine a day when Krampus will be too trendy and widely accepted to interest the cool crowd. After all, if he’s got his own movie, he may have already peaked.
Lead image: A man in costume performs during a Krampus show in Kaplice, the Czech Republic, in 2014. Krampus, a centuries-old figure, has recently come into vogue in the U.S. - Photograph by David W. Cerny, Reuters.