Krampus, the Christmas Devil of Alpine Europe

Much of Europe has a venerable Christmas or December tradition that pairs the good bishop-like St. Nicholas with a demonic, nasty character known as Krampus (and various other regional names). In Alpine Austria and southern Bavaria, this wintertime good-cop/bad-cop routine often exhibits aspects scary enough to put the fear of the devil into adults, not to mention young children. As St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) approaches, youngsters in Austria and Bavaria begin to have serious thoughts about whether they have been naughty or nice. They know Krampus is coming, and he’s definitely not nice.


This antique greeting card depicts one version of what Krampus looks like. He has a basket to take bad children away with him. The German text reads: “Greetings from Krampus!” PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to an appearance in local family homes, usually along with St. Nicholas, Krampus and his cohorts also gather to put on a wild show in the streets of many Austrian and Bavarian towns. The “show” is known as a Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Customs vary by locality, but the tradition goes back hundreds of years, and far, far beyond a mere lump of coal in a kid’s stocking. An American witness to several Krampusläufe in Austria writes: “The ability to be genuinely frightened of someone wearing a costume is often left behind in childhood, and as an adult it is a bizarre experience. Fleeing from a person wearing a wooden mask and brandishing a bundle of sticks is terrifying but also exhilarating.”

The writer, Michael Karas of The Record newspaper in New Jersey, continues: “While being relentlessly pursued through the snow by a horned beast dead set on punishing the wicked may seem like an unorthodox path to embracing the holiday spirit, the lashings were an immediate catalyst for introspection, after which I found myself silently promising to become a better person in the new year.” Continue reading