Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Krampus Comes This Weekend! Beware Sinister Saint Nick Sidekicks

Christmas is nearly upon us and, with all its commercialism and saccharine rituals, it's all too easy to forget the true meaning of the season. Thankfully, the sanctity of this glorious holiday is still appreciated in parts of Germany and Austria where good, hardworking folk remember that Christmas isn't merely about the gifts; it’s about dressing up like a cloven-hoofed demon, terrifying children with violent, demonic folklore and drinking 180-proof licorice-flavored liquor until you puke.

For centuries, our central European friends have scared the bejesus out of their children with tales of Krampus, a hairy, seven-foot-tall, horned fiend with a suggestive, Gene Simmons-esque tongue who accompanies Saint Nick on Christmas Eve to beat the hell out of naughty children with whips and branches from a birch tree. Like Santa, Krampus carries a satchel, but instead of filling it with presents, he stuffs it with children who have been especially bratty, before tossing them into a molten pit of flesh-charring destruction. Merry Christmas indeed. In some traditions, Krampus was said to make children perform a song or a dance. Those who failed to impress, well, their fate was sealed. Get in the bag! Some believe the myth of Krampus predates Christianity and that families would gather together in one room on the night of his visit, terrified that their children were about to be taken away.

Likely one of the more disturbing creatures you’ll come across in European mythology, Krampus is the water-boarding bad-cop to Santa’s gift-giving good-cop. The Beelzebub to his saint. And assuredly a hell of a deterrent to bad behavior.

Li’l Timmy: But Daddy, I want the new iPad. Why can’t I have it?! Sally’s parents said Santa is going to give her one. I HATE you Daddy. HATE you.
Li’l Timmy’s Father: Son, be quiet. Remember, Krampus can hear you.
Li’l Timmy: [becomes silent, stares at shoes]

Krampus (and "krampus" means "claw") even has his own holiday referred to as Krampusnacht, The Night of Krampus. In many parts of central Europe, men assemble in pubs and town centers on December 5th dressed as the ungodly beast, flailing with whips and branches those unfortunate enough to pass by. In Schladming, Austria there’s an annual Krampus Karnaval where thousands of drunk, branch-waving men gather adorned in masks and sheep skins in honor of Kris Kringle’s masochistic sidekick.

Reportedly, it’s kind of like Mardi Gras only with young women being terrorized by goat-horned demons instead of Girls Gone Wild mogul Joe Francis.

In less politically correct times, the drunken Krampuses (Krampi?) would travel door to door shouting and banging cowbells. Pushing their way into the homes of townspeople, they would whip local children with branches and refuse to leave until they were appeased with booze. Of course, things still occasionally do get out of hand. Last year in Austria, someone dressed as a Krampus put a thirteen year old in the hospital after choking him, beating him with a stick and ramming his head into a wall.

Though since forgotten, the Krampus myth made its way to America’s sanitized shores in the 1800s, when Germans began importing holiday postcards bearing the image of the supernatural beast. Predictably, some were not amused:

Opinion makers in the American upper classes… were dismayed by this invasion of wild foreign characters and the equally wild festivities they provoked, where crowds of costumed drunkards would break up church services and invade homes, demanding alms and hospitality. In a campaign to domesticate the holiday, intellectuals in the former Dutch colony of New York championed Sinterklaas, the benign Dutch gift giver. Starting with an appearance in Washington Irving's History of New York in 1809, his wholesome image was refined by a generation of writers into the Santa Claus we recognize today.

By the time the U.S. entered World War I, the Krampus myth had begun to lose even more steam.

When the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917 the import of German holiday cards came to an abrupt stop. The enigmatic European gift givers, the alternative Santas and the sinister sidekicks all disappeared. Styles of child rearing had changed too and modern parents disowned the dark, punitive gift-giver tradition that had fuelled holiday nightmares for so many generations. The jolly fat fellow in red had won the marketing battle and banished the whip-wielding demon.

Not surprisingly, different regions have their own variations on the Krampus myth, and in many cases sinister Santa sidekick traditions of their own. In northern Germany, Santa has a fur-covered sidekick named Belsnickel who, if you’re naughty, will fill your stocking with coal, switches and other crap you don’t want like starlight mints. The Netherlands have Zwarte Piet (aka Black Peter)—a servant of Santa who dresses in blackface and fills children’s shoes with candy. Some traditions claim Black Peter’s ebony color comes from the soot in the chimneys he slides down, but older traditions suggested he was a Moor who would kidnap naughty children and drop them off in Spain to punish them. Um, okay. In France, Santa has a buddy named Le Père Fouettard who notoriously slits three children’s throats before making a holiday stew out of them. You can friend him on Facebook! (Incidentally, some have speculated that Le Père Fouettard is the man featured on the cover of "Led Zeppelin IV.")

And in more contemporary times, there’s Boehner, an orange-faced scalawag who takes control of the House just prior to Christmas, tries to terminate funding for the unemployed and the arts and terrorizes children by taking part in cover-up scandals

But back to Krampus. Clearly, after a century of overly sanitized “It’s a Wonderful Life”-corncob-pipe-dream-sugar-plum fairy tales, there’s never been a better time for a Krampus revival. Some are already doing their best to reinvigorate the myth. Last year, Stephen Colbert tried to enlist Krampus to the front lines on the War on Christmas. And on Sunday, there’s Cramp-us in the East Village, a celebration of Krampusnacht set to the music of the Cramps. But why not take things further? We’re long overdue for a KrampusCon, which honestly sounds much more interesting and fitting than Santacon anyway. And where’s our definitive Krampus gore-porn film? Silent Night, Deadly Night was great, but who wouldn’t prefer watching Krampus, scored to a peppy piano tune by Vince Guaraldi, drop-kick Justin Bieber and the guy with the mohawk from "Glee" into a fiery abyss?

So, in the spirit of restoring a taste of the macabre to the season, join me December 5, and raise a glass of Krampus Imperial Brown Lager in honor of this long forgotten myth. Merry Krampusnacht!

Robert Lanham is the author of the beach-towel classic The Emerald Beach Trilogy, which includes the titles Pre-Coitus, Coitus, and Afterglow. More recent works include The Hipster Handbook and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right. He is the founder and editor of

22 Comments / Post A Comment

cherrispryte (#444)

You have neglected to post the most fantastic Krampus YouTube video of them all!
I was obsessed with this last year.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Fucking Germans and their bizarre child-rearing ways.

I still have nightmares to this day about the stories of Der Struwwelpeter. Seriously, this is what passed for bedtime stories in my household as a small child:

deepomega (#1,720)

Christmas in America definitely needs a good swift beating – maybe Krampus is the demon for the job.

sox (#652)

Have you seen the Elf An A Shelf thingy? Actually way creepier. You put the thing on a shelf in the house and you move it around so your kids think it's watching them.
Two reports from unrelated friends so far:
1) We had to take down the elf because ______ kept waking up and telling us that elfie was watching her dreams. (HER DREAMS!!!)
2) This morning ______ had his toy gun and was sneaking around the house cop style and when I asked him what he was doing he said he was hunting the elf down to destroy him. (???!!!!!)

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I'm glad my dad didn't have access to that thing when I was a kid.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

The Czechs do this weirdness as well. — I took my two-year-old, when I had a two-year-old, to the pre-Christmas party at my local and got ambushed by a Krampus. This Krampus was recognizably a dude I drank with, but now half-naked, painted greasy black and snarling. Scared the crampus out of me, fascinated my kid.

"And where’s our definitive Krampus gore-porn film?"

I suppose this will have to do.

KarenUhOh (#19)

This has to be a smash hit at the Vatican.

From the Wikipedia page on Le Père Fouettard:

In the 1930s, Le Père Fouettard appeared in the United States under the translated name Father Flog or Spanky. Although almost identical to the original French personification, Father Flog had nothing to do with Christmas …

… and everything to do with some really interesting data points in the Kinsey reports. A more innocent time, indeed.

I've been telling my friends about Krampus the last few Winters, but it's much easier to just forward this.

erikonymous (#3,231)

I will happily raise a stein with you at Krampusnacht, because I love crazy folkloric holiday stuff!
but I'd to argue that "It's a Wonderful Life," barring its title and the whole "an angel gets its wings" conclusion, is actually a total bummer of a movie, and surprisingly dark for what is now deemed fluffy holiday fare.

Mar (#2,357)

Yes. I don't understand why that movie is so frequently cited as the epitome of Christmas schmaltz cinema when it's about suicide, economic ruin, and squandered potential. What about hating on
"The Christmas Shoes" instead–

bashe (#10,245)

@erikonymous & Mar Yes!!! So dark! And didn't you kinda think that Pottersville looked way more fun than the regular town?

Blackcapricorn (#4,791)

This is yet another reminder why The Venture Bros is kicking the ass of every other TV show right now.

cherrispryte (#444)


NFK (#8,747)


Balthazar (#7,006)

Satan Claws.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Having grown up in a Scandinavian (mostly southern German) family, every December I had to make my yearly plea of innocence then dance a little jig for what we called Knecht Ruprecht. Not out of any real fear that I would receive spankings and coal instead of presents, but just so that my drunken, greased-up dad and uncles would get the heck out of the house and on to the bar, so that way my poor mom could get her ass to Toys R Us, which is how presents under the tree *really* happened.

Thanks for the post, TheAwl! Makes me wish I knew (I have a feeling it wouldn't go over so well with strangers' kids) some kids to torture this Christmas.

Bittersweet (#765)

I would watch the crap out of Krampus drop-kicking Bieber and the Glee crew into the fiery pit, but only if Taylor Swift were thus dispatched right after the last cheerleader's screams died away.

Ucch, der schmutze goyim. As my grandmother would say.

baldtinus (#9,204)

According the older Dutch literature, Zwarte Piet is actually a devil that has been subjected by Sinterklaas/Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicolas) and who does the Saint's punishing of bad children. The Moor interpretation came later as moors were deemed devilish too in the late Medieval times.

Post a Comment