National Geographic Daily 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.

100 comments
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!

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!

Elske Koppenaal
Elske Koppenaal

when reading the comments I am amazed to see how many different stories and traditions there are, each country having there own version. It is obvious that this article only tells a very limited version. 

I think Kate Dwyer actually got the facts about the person that caused these different 'legends'.


At least I know that in Germany the tradition of putting your shoe out to get a gift happens on the 6th of december and is only celebrated in Northwest Germany bordering on the netherlands.


In the Netherlands (and Belgium) the story is that 'Sinterklaas' resides in Spain and comes to the Netherlands (and Belgium) mid november and stays till the 6th of december (his 'bitrhday') delivering gifts mainly on the evening of the 5th of december. His helpers are called 'Zwarte piet'. He travels toward the netherlands with a steam boat. If you have been bad you can get a 'roe' (bundle of twigs) a bag of salt or get put into the bag (now empty because the gifts are given to the good kids) and brought to spain and have to work there for a year packing gifts for the good kids for the next year.


In the north of the Netherlands there are some islands and I know that at least on one of them the people dress up with scary masks in the sinterklaas period and then visit many people. The precise details I do not know.


I have heard a story (which might be completely wrong) that 'santa claus' is derived of the dutch Sinterklaas. Because of the dutch emmigrants that went to North-America and When Sinterklaas comes to the netherlands he misses the children of these emmigrated people and traveled towards North-America with his boat, which causes him to arrive there at christmas.

I guess that all the German, Italian, French British etc. emmigrants had their own story.


Would be interesting to have a book about these traditions, where you can find them and how it traveled through Europe etc.

Michael Morey
Michael Morey

I think this is an interesting tradition. Also, he is an anti-hero, which reminds us of the true worth of our real heroes, St Nichols /Santa Claus. We need our traditions!  

Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer

Wanted to add an additional comment re: Saint Nicholas; he was Bishop of Troy/Myra in Licia, Asia Minor. He was charitable and liberal minded with a child like innocence.   In particular being  solicitous for the care of the young poor children, he is venerated in the Catholic and Eastern Church as the Patron of Children. He condemned the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicea in 325. His relics are in Bari, Italy, having been stolen and taken there during the fall of the Christian Church in Constantinople, there have been failed attempts to bring Nicolas home.  Had the honour and pleasure of spending St. Nicolas day with the Bishop of Jerusalem/Myra on Saint Nicholas Day; he told the legend of Saint Nicolas; "he was born to wealth, and the poverty in his Diocese was staggering, and he was moved to help out poor children, so he would place gold coins down a  chimney,  or though a window, under the door, he likely had helpers as Nicolas was very generous and wealthy.  Most likely toys were not bought for children, but rather necessities, and likely if monies left over, sweats would be had" It is possible that people left their shoes outside the door if they lacked a chimney or access to the house."  IMO, he likely owned a red cape, there was likely snow on the ground, and in winter traveled by sledge, he delivered his goods at night to be anonymous. As Bishop, he likely had many helpers. the celebration of his feast, the robes of the Priest are While. (time of Nicolas Christians were being persecuted, likely their poverty was greater than other sects, it is alleged he helped all Children.  It seems in modern times, we live in ignorance, and celebrate  St. Nicholas, Christmas Day, the birth of Christ, and the feast of the Epiphany, bringing of gifts by the Magi, all conveniently moulded into one commercial nightmare, where the meaning seems hopelessly lost! 

Willian Sakamoto
Willian Sakamoto

Wait, he beats bad people so they can be good? He is not a bad guy at all, he is just triyng to make people nice. The poor guy is just misunderstood because his appearence!

Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer

having not heard of this before, re: Krampus, sounds like a pagan tradition was moulded into a Christian tradition..and aspects of the tradition of Mumming, the good were rewarded and the bad people, the Mummers played pranks to let nasty people know they were nasty (something akin to Halloween)….Krampus sounds like a tradition that one could do without…in fact the tradition of Christmas in Newfoundland did not involve presents, but rather a stocking filled with fruit (only available once a year) such as oranges and apples, nuts, and candy and if you be bad, a lump of coal…small tiny gifts were giving at the feast of the Magi, Jan. 6th, Epiphany, the three wise men/kings offering gifts to Jesus


Michael Morris
Michael Morris

My in-laws are Germans from the old country. I can't wait to bring up this interesting tale tonight at our special holiday dinner. Some of my relatives are quite stuffy, I'm sure that they would make for a great Krampus. Thanks Nat Geo I always love your stuff! Mike

James Bosworth
James Bosworth

In some parts of Switzerland St Niklaus (Santa Claus) is accompanied on his visits by two or more dark compannions carrying whips and a book. They read from the book the children's naughty behaviour during the year. The children have to promise to do better next year in order to get their gifts from St Niklaus.

Renee Emma
Renee Emma

St. Nicolas & Santa are 2 different people in the Netherlands, Belgium, pretty sure in Africa , and in other places that used to be Dutch colonies. They are not related.
It's irritating that people don't realize that. Even the writer of this article hasn't done his research properly it seems.

St. Nicolas (Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet) will give a child candy when sweet, and the rod when bad. I was told when I was little they would "kidnap" me to Spain if I were naughty. ( celebrated on 6th of December)

Santa Claus is made from this holiday, but he as well has a naughty or nice list. He just has elves as his helpers, were Sinterklaas has adults to help him, with their faces painted black, which comes from the charcoal that is left in the chimneys. There was a whole discussion about this, saying it was racist (Which it is not.) but to know Zwarte Piet used to be a monster, now that's funny. (Santa Claus is celebrated on the 24th and 25th of December)

Holger Bachert
Holger Bachert

being German I have never heard of it before... must be some kind of local tradition maybe in Austria or somewhere in the south

Nina Lozej
Nina Lozej

In my country, Slovenia, this tradition is still very much alive...when i was small, the night of 5th December was always scarry as hell...our neighbourhood was famous for the traditional hunting of bad kids by drunken men dressed as Krampus...it involved the police officers and lots of violence...i was never brave enough to join the groups of youngsters who were teasing those men and get caught...but the next morning there was always a present of St. Nicholas waiting for me :)

Michael Wippel
Michael Wippel

Krampus is orginated in the alpine regions in Austria, Bavaria (Germany), Czech, Italy etc. and has always been a traditional event here in Austria until today. This tradition is absolutely uncommon in Germany except Bavaria. The 5th of December (the day before the day of St.Nicolas) is the official Krampus-day. Austria is one of the most catholic countries in Europe and no one in Austria would ever call this an anti-Christian celbration, as this has always been part of the tradition here.  

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

"anti-Christmas celebrations"? I feel bad that people actually do this. Religious or not, shouldn't we keep the Christmas tradition as it is part of our culture?

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.

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@Elske KoppenaalI am from the south (Stuttgart) and we put a boot in front of the door, too. Maybe that was imported from the North at some point, but it wasn't a new thing, it was what my grandma told me the kids do on the eve of St. Nicholas day.

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@Willian Sakamotoit is a story from a time when not everything had to be nice and positive. People were scared of hell and of demons, so of course the children had to be told scary stories, too.

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@Michael Morris, they probably never heard of Krampus because it is more of an Austrian tradition, maybe some parts of Bavaria, too. In most other parts of Germany, the bad guy accompanying St. Nicholas is called Knecht Ruprecht. He is not a demon, but more like Santa's helper who does the dirty work: he carries a wooden rod and beats the bad children. Ah, the good old times! ;)

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@Renee Emma where I come from in Germany, there is no Santa Claus at all, there is only St. Nicholas ("Sankt Nikolaus") who brings presents at the 6th of December, but only small presents, like some chocolates. Then there's the "Christkind" that brings the bigger presents at the eve of the 24th of December. 

"Christkind" would probably translate to "baby Christ" in English, by the way.

The church in Germany are trying hard to keep the tradition of St. Nicholas alive because he is being more and more replaced by the American Santa Claus, dressed in red, riding with the reindeers, which was more or less a marketing stunt from the coca cola company (although based on St. Nicholas somehow)

Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer

@Michael Wippel at this festival, is there an effigy burnt…saw in a movie re: Pink Panther, lol!; and people were dress-up, similar to the  Mumming Festival celebrated in Newfoundland…can you offer any comment…. thanks

Heiko Säle
Heiko Säle

@Richmond Acosta, here in Germany, the catholic church would be more than happy to have the traditional Saint Nicholas back with his traditional helpers. Be it Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus, they are accompanying Saint Nicholas, while today the stores are flooded with Coca-Cola Santa from the United States, which has nothing to do with Christian tradition at all (although based on them).

So please, if you want to keep the traditions alive, do not mistake Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for a christian tradition! It is not. Saint Nicholas is! And so are his companions.

Alice Ranzenbacher
Alice Ranzenbacher

Well, nobody in Austria would consider it as being an Anti-Christmas celebration! Moreover SAINT NICOLAS IS ALWAYS ACCOMPANIED BY KRAMPUS and as far as I know he is a Catholic saint...! Krampus is supposed to be a helping hand for St. Nicolas! This article is a good example for bad research and a non-existent cultural understanding of this region! Greetings from Austria

Quin Art
Quin Art

@L. Rathsman

  Rabbi

1. Jewish religious leader

The leader of a Jewish congregation, or the chief religious official of a synagogue

 2. Jewish scholar

A scholar qualified to teach or interpret Jewish law

 Encarta dictionary: English (North American)

From what I can find, Rabbi means "the teacher". Contrary to popular belief Jesus of Nazareth was trained to be a Rabbi, not a carpenter.  

Michael Wippel
Michael Wippel

@Kate Dwyer@Michael Wippel Hmmm, there are many variations of these traditions especially in Austria although it's a small country, but you could meen the solistice celebrations germ. "Sonnenwende" - this is before summer when we burn huge woodpiles in Austria - in some regions with a dressed straw-puppet on top. By the way, this mummering sounds fun.

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