Though Krampus may look like a version of the Devil, he’s actually part of a rich, centuries-old, Yuletide tradition that we here in the United States are just catching onto. Briefly, Krampus is the furry, fanged, clawed, and horned beast that accompanies Saint Nicholas on his rounds throughout the many Alpine villages in Austria, southern Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and other mountainous regions of central Europe. That’s Saint Nicholas the bishop, mind you - not the more familiar fat guy in the red suit (who doesn’t show up until the 1820s).
While the saint rewards the good children with sweets or presents, it’s the Krampus who deals with the truly bad boys and girls. In American Christmas tradition, as in many others, the concept of punishment for terrible children has faded to mere symbolism, or been forgotten entirely: Santa Claus rewards the good kids, while supposedly the bad ones get a token lump of coal. In reality, the rotten little bullies of the world will probably still get his or her Wii or Playstation from a sympathetic Santa. Not so in this Germanic tradition, where bad behavior results in moral retribution and comeuppance! The Krampus comes for those bad kids, and though it’s usually only a scare tactic - with much shaking of large, clanging bells, rusty old chains, and swinging birch switches - sometimes a particularly nasty little brat gets taken away in a wicker basket or burlap sack, never to be heard from again – or so they say! Over time, the more frightening elements of the Krampus legend were toned down, until by the late 1800s, he had become a folklore character that parents used to warn their misbehaving children with every year prior to Saint Nicholas Day – a Yuletide boogieman, as it were.
So where does this tradition stand today? Throughout Alpine Europe, Krampuslaufs are still run on the 5th of December - the eve of Saint Nicholas Day - by loud, boisterous groups of people who don very elaborate, hairy costumes, and grotesque, horned masks. Vying for the most traditional or scariest look, dozens of Krampusse (plural form) roam the streets of many old towns - clanging their oversized bells and chains in parades that frequently include angels, Frau Perchta (yet another Alpine, mid-winter legend) and others, but always including Saint Nicholas himself. Done with an eye to merry mischief and a raucous good time (not to mention copious amounts of schnapps), Krampuslaufs are enormous fun!
In recent years Krampus has seen a resurgence in pop-culture, and a growing number of cities across the U.S. have begun their own celebrations of the Krampus tradition. Here in Richmond, RVA Krampuslauf began in 2013 to bring this tradition to life in Carytown, surprising shoppers and business owners alike with a costumed parade down the sidewalks of the commercial district.
So are you sick of the same old candy-coated, consumer-driven holiday season? Do you long to add a little more Halloween to your Christmas? Now that you know what the loud, clanging, fuss is all about, join us! Let's put some really old Europe in our American Christmas this year! Gruß vom Krampus!
Photo by Dawn Yilmaz