This article is about the folklore figure. The history of the Krampus figure has been theorized as stretching back to pre-Christian Alpine traditions. There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other pre children is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. Discussing his observations in 1975 while in Irdning, a small town in Styria, anthropologist John J.
The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing 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. 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. In the 1950s, the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus Is an Evil Man”. Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred and continues today. A 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from Krampus! 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. Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children. The Ruten may have had significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites.
Nicholas is celebrated in parts of Europe on 6 December. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses. It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps, a strong distilled fruit brandy. Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus since the 1800s. Krampus is often featured looming menacingly over children. He is also shown as having one human foot and one cloven hoof.
The twigs are painted gold and displayed year-round in the house—a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. In smaller, more isolated villages, the figure has other beastly companions, such as the antlered “wild man” figures, and St Nicholas is nowhere to be seen. A toned-down version of Krampus is part of the popular Christmas markets in Austrian urban centres like Salzburg. In these, more tourist-friendly interpretations, Krampus is more humorous than fearsome.
In Cave del Predil, in the northern part of the Udine province in Italy, an annual Krampus festival is held in early December. Just before the sun sets, the Krampus come out from an old cave and chase children—boys but also adults—punishing them with strokes on the legs. To satisfy their anger children and young people must recite a prayer. North American Krampus celebrations are a growing phenomenon. Similar figures are recorded in neighboring areas.