Walking through the grocery store a week or so ago, I saw a chocolate devil on display with the Christmas candy. I bought him and brought him home to figure out who he was. “Why is a Christmas devil part of the German holiday tradition?” I wondered.
I’ve learned that the Christmas devil’s name is Krampus, and that he’s older than our modern Christian Christmas celebrations. He has Pagan roots, and has made appearances in European Christmas stories for centuries.
By the 17th Century, Krampus had been paired up with Saint Nicholas; a prominent figure in German Christmas (not to be confused with Santa Claus).
The tradition of Saint Nicholas varies from country to country, but across most cultures, he is a bringer of small gifts or candy to boys and girls who have been good. Kids who have misbehaved, on the other hand, might expect coal or a twig from Saint Nicholas. Even worse, though, Krampus might pay them a visit.
Saint Nicholas has his own day on the Christmas calendar. In Germany, we celebrate him on December 6th. In some other countries, St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 19th. Krampus — a scary, hooved, devil man who punishes bad boys and girls — usually pays his visit on St. Nicholas’ Day’s Eve.
Krampus is hairy, dark-colored, and horned. He carries chains, and he’s know to swat children with birch branches. In some versions of the Krampus story, he carries a whip instead. One popular Austrian child psychologist tried to have Krampus banned in 2006, saying that he was too terrifying for young children.
Krampus is no joke: In some cultures, he carries a bathtub or a sack that’s big enough to put children in who have been bad. If that’s not horrifying enough for a small kid, the mythology says Krampus carries them (in the bag or tub) straight to hell.
It’s one thing to tell kids Santa won’t bring them presents if they’re bad. Telling them that Krampus will cart the directly to hell in a bathtub is kind of messed up.
From what I can find online, Krampus is part of the Christmas folklore of countries across Europe, but is most prominent in Germany. This video shows the Krampuslauf (Krampus “run”) at the 2013 Munich Christmas Market. Krampus whips passersby, picks up children, and chases people down the street.
Video from Muenchen.de
In some alpine communities, men dress up as Krampus and parade through town. According to anthropologist John Honigmann, “Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century…” (Wikipedia)
I’m glad I learned more about Krampus this year, but as an outsider to German culture, I still think that a devil in the Christmas section of the store is kind of weird. Krampus has been alive and well in Germany for centuries, though, and I doubt he’s going away any time soon.