As the lyrics to the beloved Christmas carol “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” go: “He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice / Santa Claus is coming to town.” Well, if you thought Santa Claus was keeping tabs on who was good or bad, wait until you meet Krampus.
Who is Krampus?
In Austria, Hungary, and many other parts of Central Europe like Croatia and Slovakia, a bleak myth describes what happens during the Christmas season to children who have misbehaved during the past year. According to legend, unruly kids are paid a visit by a mythical figure known as Krampus. Unlike Saint Nicholas, who brings gifts and treats, Krampus punishes and warns kids who need to straighten up.
The depictions of this creature usually feature a hairy man-goat with sharp horns and an even sharper tongue that hangs wickedly from his mouth. He often is carrying rusty chains and a handful of birches for whipping. Krampus is often portrayed with a sadistic smile. Some images of Krampus show him hauling away mischievous children in a basket on his back. Where do they go? The underworld. (Now that’s a spin on the whole naughty-or-nice business.)
Where does the name Krampus come from?
The word Krampus is thought to be related to the German word Krampen, meaning “claw”—a fitting etymology for this clawed beast. The myth of Krampus is old, believed to be pre-Christian. The character, however, became very popular in the late 1800s.
Traditionally, in early December young men would dress up as the demonic Krampus and take to the streets, terrifying children. Now, modern Krampus costumes usually include sheep’s skin, horns, and wooden masks. While perhaps best known in Central Europe, Krampus is celebrated (or feared) in the US, too, with many cities hosting an annual bar-hopping Krampus Krawl. Krampus has also appeared in TV shows and films.