The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated in parts of Europe on 6 December. On the preceding evening of December 5, Krampus Night , the wicked hairy devil appears on the streets. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, but Krampus visits homes and businesses. The Saint usually appears in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a golden ceremonial staff. Unlike in Hungarian versions of Santa Claus, in these celebrations Saint Nicholas concerns himself only with the good children, while Krampus is responsible for the bad. Nicholas dispenses gifts, while Krampus supplies coal and the ruten bundles!
A Krampus running is a run of celebrants dressed as the wicked beast, often fueled by alcohol. The tradition resurrects a centuries-old ancient ritual meant to disperse winter’s ghosts.
It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps, a strong distilled fruit brandy. These runs may include Perchten, similarly wild pagan spirits of Germanic folklore and sometimes female in representation, although the Perchten are properly associated with the period between winter solstice and 6 January.
The origin of the Krampus running
In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon”, who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. Regions in Austria feature similar figures and, more widely, Krampus is one of a number of Companions of Saint Nicholas in regions of Europe. The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated a pre-Christian origin for the figure.
In traditional parades and in such events as the Krampuslauf (English: Krampus run), young men dressed as Krampus participate; such events occur annually in most Alpine towns. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten.
The history of the Krampus figure has been theorized as stretching back to Pre-Christian Alpine traditions. In a brief article discussing the figure, published in 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:
There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch – apart from its phallic significance – may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites. Discussing his observations while in Irdning, a small town in Styria
The Saint Nicholas festival incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic antics appeared in Medieval church plays. A large literature, much of it by European folklorists, bears on these subjects.
Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of “heathen” elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.
The Krampus figures persisted, and by the 17th century Krampus had been incorporated into Christian winter celebrations by pairing Krampus with St Nicholas. Countries of the former Habsburg Empire have largely borrowed the tradition of Krampus accompanying St Nicholas on 5 December from Austria. Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred and continues today.
Luckily the Krampus tradition is being revived in Bavaria as well, along with a local artistic tradition of hand-carved wooden masks (I’m really looking forward to the event which will be held on 11th and 18th of December in the city center Marien platz)). There has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children. Although Krampus appears in many variations, most share some common physical characteristics. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long, pointed tongue lolls out, and he has fangs
Krampus carries chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. Of more pagan origins are the ruten, bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children. The ruten may have had significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites. The birch branches are replaced with a whip in some representations. Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a basket strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. Some of the older versions make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken. This part of the legend refers to the times that the Moors raided the European coasts, and as far as Iceland, to abduct the local people into slavery. This quality can be found in Belgium in other Companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwarte Piet who is a young Moorish man.