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Krampus and St Nicolas at Christmas time

Who is the Krampus?

I’m sick of Santa.

It’s not natural for anyone to be that cherry-cheeked and cheerily cherubic. Frankly, it’s irritating to be flanked by images of a huge, excessively jolly man when you’ve been standing in line for four hours trying to buy presents. So how about an ersatz holiday representative for this year’s Christmastide?

How about a biped goat-beast, complete with horns, serpentine tongue, and bundle of sticks for whipping bad children: the Krampus?

The Krampus is the very antithesis of St. Nicholas—he is the ill-tempered, unsettlingly ugly symbol of Germanic Christmas tradition who lends slightly more urgent emphasis to the warning “You better watch out.”

His name may derive from the word Kralle, claw, or perhaps from the Bavarian krampn meaning “lifeless, dried-out, gone-to-seed or withered”. In Tyrol, he is more straight-forwardly named Tuifl—Teufel—the devil. According to legend, each year on the 5th of December (Krampusnacht: the night of the Krampus) he emerges from his hellhole to wander Alpine towns and dole out wicked punishment to poorly-behaved children.

In practice, however, he is represented by dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of people decked out in the Krampus’s garb, who take to the streets that evening for the sole purpose of terrorizing passers-by. This ritual is dubbed the Krampuslauf (walk of the Krampus) and it is probably related to what we know as mumming today; the term “mumming” dates back to the 15th century, and here means “the action of disguising oneself, especially for festivities”. (Read no further if you think “festivities” should only involve caroling, merriment, and hot apple cider.)

Krampus costumes

To properly disguise themselves as the punitive yuletide man-goat, the Krampus disciples don thick fur and horned Larven, lifelike masks featuring his bloodcurdling countenance (think of our word larva, which in the mid-17th century—instead of a disgusting baby insect—meant “a disembodied spirit; a ghost, hobgoblin, or specter”). In their clawed hands they grip tall bundles of whippy birch branches called Weidenruten—Rute being similar to our word “rod”—which will be smacked mercilessly against unsuspecting bodies.

To make matters more intense, each Krampus may carry a Butte on his back: a child-sized tub, perfect for carting off that year’s poorly-mannered youth for a midnight feast. (Indeed, Butte is also a kind of sausage casing, so who knows what the real Krampus does with the bad kids after he gets home.) Finally, the Krampusse strap cowbells to their bodies. The sound echoes ominously in the cold winter night as they silently wander, clutching their Weidenruten, shouldering their Butten, searching for victims.

Gruß vom Krampus!

Though their purpose is primarily to find and punish wicked children, the Krampusse will also engage in Kramperltratzn or Tuifltratzen with adults during their Krampuslauf, which simply means that they use whatever means possible to terrify, harass, and irritate them. Tratzen is another word for reizen, meaning “to tease; to aggravate”, but it unfortunately can also mean “to allure; to excite erotically”. I’m not sure what implications this has during the Krampuslauf itself—none, one hopes—but in recent years depictions of the Krampus have taken a decidedly erotic turn as well. Krampuskarten, or greeting cards featuring pictures of the Krampus, will often show the horned incubus-like goat seducing wives or even being seduced themselves. Clearly, the Krampus provides an excellent reason to ponder the origins of the word “horny.”

Adult content aside and more traditionally, the Krampuskarten will depict a Krampus sneaking up on a child about to be punished; these cards will often read (with typical, understated German humor) “Gruß vom Krampus!” (Greetings from the Krampus!)

Other Krampuskarten employ creepy, yet strangely cute rhymes to get the point across. Some gems include:

Seid ihr heuer brav gewesen? Sonst krieg ihr’s mit dem Krampusbesen!
(Have you been good today? If not, you’ll get hit with the Krampus’ switch!)

Geh mach dei’ Fensterl auf, der Krampus wart’ scho‘ drauf!
(Go open the window; the Krampus is waiting for you!)

And my personal favorite:

Mit Bomben und Granaten soll dich der Teufel braten!
(The devil will fry you with bombs and grenades!)

The pithy, efficient language of these rhymes emulates that of Valentine’s Day cards; maybe the Krampus just wants to be loved? In any event, they serve a similar purpose: these informative rhymes are designed to be quickly memorized—and internalized. And with Krampusnacht fast approaching, there is no moment too soon. So come on. Let’s all take a moment this Christmas season to threaten our loved ones (and that lady who just cut you in line) with the sordid tale of the Krampus.


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