Krampus and Saint Nicholas visit a Viennese home. Newspaper-illustration from 1896.

Published December 2, 2016

Krampus the Christmas ‘Devil’ Is Coming to Town

A few weeks ago, a stranger tweeted this picture at me. It showed a horned beast with fangs, and it could only mean one thing: Krampus season was finally here.

Krampus, for those of you who don’t spend Christmas plumbing the depths of the Internet, is the demon-like half-goat of Austrian folklore. A scary counterpart to St. Nicholas, Krampus punishes naughty children by beating them or dragging them to his lair—or even to hell.

gruss_vom_krampus

A 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from the Krampus!’

In Austria and parts of Germany, people have already begun celebrating the seasonal Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”) by getting drunk and running through the streets in frightening costumes. Next week, some revelers will don Krampus suits again for Krampusnacht (“Krampus night”), a tradition in which costumed adults go door to door scaring children. Charming!

In the past several years, Krampus has also become surprisingly popular in the U.S., inspiring parties, parades, and last year’s feature film Krampus (though he starred in multiple low-budget movies before that). Etsy is now awash in Krampus ornaments, greeting cards, and ugly Krampus sweaters.

Many Americans were drawn to him in the first place because he seemed subversive. Is it possible, though, that Krampus is becoming a bit … commercial?

Maybe. But, as with  America’s Coca Cola-loving Santa Claus, people have been exploiting Krampus for profit for a very long time.

Between 1890 and World War I, companies sold Krampus Christmas cards in Germany, Austria, and other countries, often with slogans like “Gruss vom Krampus” (Greetings from Krampus) or “Brav Sein” (Be Good). The cards for kids featured images of a scary Krampus frightening children, beating them, or taking them away, usually in a pouch on his back. Often, these children were screaming or crying. (Ah, the holidays.)

As early as 1903 or 1904, companies also sold cards that were a little more “adult.” Although some showed Krampus punishing grown-ups, others portrayed Krampus as a silly figure who carted off women—or even as a romantic suitor.

But the important thing isn’t how many inappropriate Krampus cards or refrigerator magnets you get in your stocking this season; it’s whether you remember the true meaning of Krampus. In the words of Charles Dickens, “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Follow Becky Little on Twitter.

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