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Meet Krampus, Saint Nick’s Not-So-Jolly Sidekick

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.

Quick summary

Krampus is an ancient creature, typically depicted as a half-man, half-goat, who serves as Santa Claus’ evil counterpart appearing in stories, greeting cards, and even celebrations. He’s said to punish naughty children, and while his origins may date back to pre-Christian times, he’s enjoying newfound appeal today, thanks to depictions in comic books, TV shows, and horror films.

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. As Saint Nicholas, the protector of children, evolved into the legendary Santa Claus, who brings treats and tricks, Krampus took on the role of punishing and frightening kids who need to straighten up.

The depictions of Krampus 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. In some images, Krampus hauls 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.)

Krampus is not the only one of his kind—characters known as Belsnickle, Schmutzli, and Knecht Ruprecht also depict frightening figures who supposedly accompany Santa during the holidays. The exact story and depiction of the character varies by origin country.

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What is the origin of Krampus?

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, and he was supposedly the son of the god of the underworld according to the Norse tradition.

Krampus may date back to pagan rituals related to the winter solstice, which are some of the oldest wintertime celebrations. In the 1600s, as Christian countries celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 5 or 6, Krampus made an appearance, serving as a foil to the kind-hearted saint. Although the Catholic Church attempted to ban use of the character of Krampus, he achieved new popularity in the late 1800s. Traditionally, in early December young men would dress up as the demonic Krampus and take to the streets, terrifying children. Krampuskarten, or cards depicting Krampus, were popular during the holidays in the 1800s and 1900s in Central European countries.

Today, 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 is enjoying newfound popularity, thanks in part to his appearance in TV shows, comic books, and, in the US alone, a slew of horror films (from Mother Krampus to Krampus: The Devil Returns).

Get on the "nice" list this year with a heartfelt thank you. We've got seven creative ways to express gratitude this season.

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