Santa's got some competition: a terrifying Christmas beast named Krampus, which is catching on in pop culture worldwide.

" /> Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil
National Geographic News
Participants dressed as the Krampus creature walk the streets in search of delinquent children on November 30, 2013 in Austria.

Merry—or not-so-merry—Krampus! This beast with Germanic roots is St. Nicholas's other half and scares children into being nice, not naughty.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES  

Tanya Basu

National Geographic

Published December 17, 2013

Bad Santa, meet Krampus: a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who literally beats people into being nice and not naughty.

Krampus isn't exactly the stuff of dreams: Bearing horns, dark hair, and fangs, the anti-St. Nicholas comes with a chain and bells that he lashes about, along with a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kids down to the underworld.

We wondered: What are the origins of this "Christmas Devil"?

Krampus, whose name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. The legendary beast also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.

The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December.

Krampus was created as a counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, would swat "wicked" children and take them away to his lair.

According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 also happens to be Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they'd left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (bad behavior).

A more modern take on the tradition in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic involves drunken men dressed as devils, who take over the streets for a Krampuslauf—a Krampus Run of sorts, when people are chased through the streets by the "devils."

Why scare children with a demonic, pagan monster? Maybe it's a way for humans to get in touch with their animalistic side.

Such impulses may be about assuming "a dual personality," according to António Carneiro, who spoke to National Geographic magazine earlier this year about revitalized pagan traditions. The person dressed as the beast "becomes mysterious," he said.

Lump of Coal Preferred?

Krampus's frightening presence was suppressed for many years—the Catholic Church forbade the raucous celebrations, and fascists in World War II Europe found Krampus despicable because it was considered a creation of the Social Democrats.

But Krampus is making a comeback now, thanks partly to a "bah, humbug" attitude in pop culture, with people searching for ways to celebrate the yuletide season in non-traditional ways. National Geographic has even published a book in German about the devilish Christmas beast.

In the U.S., people are buying into the trend with Krampus parties. Monday night's episode of American Dad, called "Minstrel Krampus," highlighted the growing movement of anti-Christmas celebrations.

For its part, Austria is attempting to commercialize the harsh persona of Krampus by selling chocolates, figurines, and collectible horns. So there are already complaints that Krampus is becoming too commercialized.

Looks like Santa might have some competition.

Follow Tanya Basu on Twitter.

121 comments
Liam L.
Liam L.

I do not like where this is going. Sometimes I wonder why people celebrate things they are afraid of. 

Laurean Pekurar
Laurean Pekurar

Besides "Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic" you may add Romania, with the similar "jocul caprei" or more often just "Capra" (the goat).

In Croatia, Bosnia, A.P. Vojvodina, Serbia (the Vlachs), even in Greece, there are such pagan remnant traditions.

Chris Irwin
Chris Irwin

I feel that there's too little of the spirit of Krampus in the Christmas season...

S Frank
S Frank

Great article. I find it interesting how mainsteam Karmpus has become. There was a mention of him on the Tonight Show last night and now there is a very funny video on youtube, "My Lil Krampus". I just wonder how the people who grew up with these traditions feel about it? Too commercialized or fun?


William King
William King

This article is a good antidote to the "Keep Christ in Christmas" nonsense.

Laura Boston Thek
Laura Boston Thek

And I agree here in Europe it is not anti-Christmas...just a part of the holiday.  Here in über Catholic Bavaria they would never allow something anti-Christ.  Trust me.  We were once almost thrown out of a Stube for doing a card trick during Lent. :) 

Wolfgang Böhm
Wolfgang Böhm

There are three things that bother me about this article:


1) Krampus is widely unknown in Germany. It is mainly an Austrian thing and is only known in the very south of Bavaria. 


2) There are no drunken Krampus. These days alcohol is strictly forbidden at almost every event.


3) Krampus is not "anti Christmas". In fact it was invented by the Catholic church during counter-reformation. St. Nicholaus would go from door to door (accompanied by Krampus) and test people on Catholic knowledge to uncover Protestants. The pagan "Lord of Yule"-thing rather comes from the Perchten tradition – Something that in recent years got mixed up more and more with Krampus. Perchten in many places look quite like Krampus and are also seen during December (and January) and even few Austrian people know that there is a difference. 

Juliet A. C.
Juliet A. C.

Being an American myself, I feel I need to say something about Americans: We steal EVERYTHING. We are a country made up of people from other countries, so naturally we are all a little bit of everything, but anytime another country has something AWESOME, we steal it. Just saying.

Susan S.
Susan S.

Have to wonder where this Krampus creature, Saytrs, devilish human/animalistic forms all  originated from? 

Were these imaginary creatures derived from once feared ancient shamans or sorcerers similar to the mysterious horned figure painted in the cave of Lascaux France?

Susan S.
Susan S.

IMO this Krampus character strongly resembles a familiar Shaman or sorcerer figure discovered in the Lausaux caves France.

Ima Ryma
Ima Ryma

Krampus is a creature from hell,

Horns and fangs and smelly dark fur,

Carries a stick and clangs a bell,

Seasonal bad Santa for sure.

Came to life in Alpine folklore,

Even before the Christmas days,

To scare all the children galore

For any misbehaving ways.

Germanic for "claw," Krampus tiz

All the better to grab onto

The children in the not nice biz.

Child - Krampus is coming for you.


Krampus takes naughty children, so

Get ready child - you're gonna go. 

Dustin Braham
Dustin Braham

i didn't know this was a real thing. i first heard of it on an episode of the league lol 

Edward Cunningham
Edward Cunningham

Something tells me Krampus fans are really into heavy metal.

Angela D.
Angela D.

Satyrs and fauns were not scary.

Kimberly Moon
Kimberly Moon

I think I should start celebrating this tradition bwahahahaha

Molly Murphy
Molly Murphy

Here in Buffalo, the Polish Americans celebrate Dyngus Day, which is the day after Easter (and the 1st day after Lent) in which they inbibe large quantities of food and alcohol and the boys show they like a girl by beating them on the behind with pussy willow branches.  The girls can fight back by spraying the boys with water.  Funny how many old world traditions involve hitting people with sticks tho.  lol

Gladys Gtease
Gladys Gtease

I think the american version is the kioski, which terrorizes mall shoppers -  demons trying to corner you and tear your eyebrows off with special strings or smear you with foul-smelling creams and whatnot......

Leon Kiss
Leon Kiss

I'm Hungarian, and I know what is Krapmus, maybe that's why I was a good kid always... ;)

Every year we cleaned our shoes and we put it beside the door, and the next morning we had treats in it. He he I newer got the stick :)

Melanie Kleindienst
Melanie Kleindienst

This is not very commercial in my opinnion...This has been this way for many years. Children are really afraid of the krampus - and most adults too. But that's maybe because the adults get hit a bit at the "Krampuslauf" ;) It is told that this hitting casts out the bad deed you did during the year - and on the  next day you get rewardet from St. Nikolaus. St. Nikolaus is not Santa - we have no Sant but the "Christkind". An angel like creature who flys in through the window and leaves presents on the evening of 24. December.

Besides the Krampus is no "Competition" to St. Nikolaus but help in some way.. St. Nikolaus takes always 1 or 2 Krampuse with him when he visits the houses with small children who still believe it's all true.

Merry Christmas from Austria ;)
Meli

Melanie Kleindienst
Melanie Kleindienst

It has always been like this.. Children are really afraid of the krampus - and most adults too. But that's maybe because the adults get hit a bit at the "Krampuslauf" ;) It is told that this hitting casts out the bad deed you did during the year - and on the  next day you get rewardet from St. Nikolaus. St. Nikolaus is not Santa - we have no Sant but the "Christkind". An angel like creature who flys in through the window and leafes presents on the evening of 24. December.

Besides the Krampus is no "Competition" to St. Nikolaus but help in some way.. St. Nikolaus takes always 1 or 2 Krampuse with him when he visits the houses with small children who still believe it's all true.

Merry Christmas from Austria ;)
Meli

Lianna Trimble
Lianna Trimble

This is probably one of the worst articles I've read from National Geographic. It appears their standards have been slipping more and more by the wayside. I can understand the sensationalized dreck they put on television; gotta get those ratings, I guess. But in print? I mean, I read an article a while back that described the gold amulets worn by Egyptian priests as "bling". This article is also pretty sub-standard. The research is shoddy at best; it feels so piecemeal I can almost see the facts sheet spread out. And who ever calls satyrs and fauns "scary"? I've never posted a comment on any publication before, but this was too much. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but in the age of relentless blogging and rehashed information, its a shame to see a pedigreed publication join in on lowering the bar on quality writing.

eugene kachmarsky
eugene kachmarsky

thank you. this is fascinating to know. what i really want to know, though, is what does any of this have to do with the celebration of the birth of a Jewish rabbi 2013 years ago? it's called "Christ"mas, right?

Ruth Keener
Ruth Keener

I grew up in Hesse, Germany, but I never knew of Krampus. We always celebrated Nikolaus Tag on December 6, he was accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht who scared little kids, asking them if they had been good!

Ivan V.
Ivan V.

This is old tradition in Croatia.

Andrea Fieler
Andrea Fieler

Frau Müller is correct indeed and the research on this article is rather poor. Krampus is celebrated in Bavaria vs. those other 15 German states celebrating Knecht Ruprecht. 

Thom Perkins
Thom Perkins

The tv series GRIMM just did a segment on Krampus. You can see it on HULU.

Phil Rosa-Leeke
Phil Rosa-Leeke

I had to laugh at this when I read the name of the man who spoke to National Geographic magazine earlier this year, António Carneiro! Carneiro is the Portuguese word for... wait for it... GOAT!

Lenka Bělková
Lenka Bělková

In the Czech Republic, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the devil and the angel. It is usually teenagers who dress up, walk along streets and visit small children of their friends and relatives, givng them candy and an occasional lump of coal :-) The feast does not involve drunken men!

Wolfgang Böhm
Wolfgang Böhm

@S Frank in general most people here in the heartlands of the Krampus are quite happy with the growing popularity of this old tradition. I personally like how differently people interpret the Krampus to fit it in their communities. 

The pop culture version however causes a little concern because it's misinterpretation of the Krampus as a legendary creature may outshine the true spirit of the tradition due to it's appeal and mainstream media presence. But in general a country that's economy relies on income from tourism for a big part certainly won't mind a little commercialization of it's traditions I'd say. And as long as we "keep it real" here, nobody will mind. 

BTW I found the The Tonight Show bit hilarious – at least for the most part. Even if it is funny I don't like the Krampus events being viewed as an alcoholic frenzy. This is an image we really struggle to get rid of.

Frank Clay
Frank Clay

@William King William - you do realize that Christmas is a contraction for Christ's Mass? :)


Is it a borrowed holiday? Absolutely. The evidence overwhelmingly says so but who is to say one tradition is wrong over another? Hence Kwanzaa, "the Holidays", Hanukkah and everything else. Incidentally, for any Jewish friends, tonight begins Hanukkah. 


The world is big enough for us all.

Scott Foxx
Scott Foxx

@Susan S. Read the Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Animism is the progenitor of modern theology, with the 'old' gods often absorbed and transformed into the new with the old symbols becoming demonized. So the ram (big horns, big genitals, responsible for making lots and lots of little goats and then being dominated by one of them once those little goats become rams themselves, repeating the cycle) became the symbol of male energy; this energy, distilled into aggression, drinking and frivolity then leads to fauns and satyrs and Bacchus. The woman was young (the Virgin) in Spring, and then the Crone in winter, being both the wife and the mother to the annual seed of the male (as illustrated later in the Oedipus story). Along comes Christianity who do not want people to enjoy sex and drinking and generally having fun, so now the ram becomes Satan (because sex and fun and fighting is all bad), the Virgin becomes, well, the Virgin, but now as a vessel only for God (who apparently is the only one who gets to have sex out of wedlock, which is pretty much how things happened before anyway), and the annual festivals become Valentines Day, Easter and Christmas, or Fertility, Harvest and Rebirth connected to the agricultural calendar, which is basically what they were all along anyway. Havent you ever wondered why Easter is Jesus AND a giant rabbit with a bunch of eggs? Look into the history of religions and you will always find a horned creature that is male and sexual and debauched, a young fertile woman, an old unfertile woman, and somewhere a rebirth from death. You will also find sacred trees, and floods, and miracles. Enjoy!

Raymond Mark
Raymond Mark

@Angela D. Satyrs may not have been as physically monstrous as, say, hydras or gorgons, but they were certainly frightful creatures to be avoided. As followers of Pan, they were associated with the wild spirit of the wood, and their participation in Dionysian orgies involved unbridled sexuality, including rape. Satyrs were not the sweet, sanitized half-humans you see in Disney movies; they were more akin to moose during rutting season. Having lived in New England all my life, I assure you, a rutting moose is indeed scary. To think that a satyr is not scary is like seeing a black bear in the woods and thinking that it's so cute you have to hug it.

Molly Murphy
Molly Murphy

@Lianna Trimble They may have lowered their brow somewhat in pursuit of a younger demographic, but there is still nary a Kardashian in sight a fact which I am most grateful!!  Although it would be quite interesting to read Jane Goodall's take in that crew!

Quin Art
Quin Art

@eugene kachmarsky Christmas was invented by the early Roman Catholic Church to supplant the Pagan celebrations at that time of year. Scholars who have bothered to look into it have determined, using information from the Bible, that Jesus was born in early to mid September. 

Engbert Wentink
Engbert Wentink

@eugene kachmarsky That rabbi you speak of was born at a time of the year when shepherds were out tending their flocks outdoors at night. December is far too cold and wet for that type of activity in Israel. Sometimes it even snows. The original deity who had his birthday around midwinter was the Zoroastrian sun god Mithras, worshipped by the Roman legions during the later stages of the Empire, including the legate of the XX legion Valeria Victrix, Constantine.

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@adelgunde müllerI am from South Germany (Stuttgart) and we had Knecht Ruprecht there as well. 

I think Krampus is an Austrian tradition, maybe parts of Bavaria, too. I never heard of Krampus as a kid though.

Diane H.
Diane H.

@Quin Art @eugene kachmarsky  It wasn't invented. If you read about the course of abia you will find out about Zachariah and Elizabeth, Jesus' aunt and uncle and also Luke 1: 26. December 25 was the conception day. When Mary was visited by the Angel. So that is why Jesus' B-day is in September. What does matter is that Jesus was born.


David Fontes
David Fontes

Rabbi is the term for any Jewish (nationality) spiritual teacher in that time period, therefore Christ was a rabbi. Secondly Christmas was ordained by Constantine in a failed effort to unify the Christian and pagan religions. He declared the Roman Saturnalia, a winter festival that took place every December 25 and was marked by excessive drunkenness and sexual orgies, to include a celebration called Christ's Mass now known as Chrismas to celebrate the birth of Christ. It has nothing to do with the actual date of Christ's birth as that is impossible to determine.

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