Justin Nolan Discusses the Story of Krampus, Santa’s Wicked Counterpart
You’re probably familiar with St Nick, the cheerful, red-cheeked altruist who visits each home on Christmas, delivering gifts and joy to well-mannered children. But have you heard of Krampus, St. Nick’s evil, fang-toothed counterpart?
As a professor at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Anthropology, Justin M. Nolan has always been fascinated with ancient lore and traditions. Each story and story-cycle contain valuable statements about our collective views, beliefs, and values. One such tradition which has re-entered popular awareness after centuries in the shadows is Krampus, a horrific goblin-like creature who terrorizes naughty children during the holidays.
The Image of Krampus
Generally depicted with giant horns, black hooves, and a nightmarish face, Krampus is known as the darker, grumpier, more sinister ‘yin’ accompaniment to Saint Nick’s sunnier, cheerier, and better-known ‘yang’. Given the stark differences in their appearance and dispositions, it’s logical, and astonishing perhaps to some, that both Krampus and St. Nick co-exist in feel-good Christmas folk tradition today.
The depictions and stories of Krampus do vary significantly, yet in some illustrations he is more monster than human. In others he appears as half-man and half-goat (or half-demon). The only consistent components to his physicality, it seems, are his curled horns, and foul, brooding countenance, and his pernicious, wickedly black and beady eyes.
According to legend, Krampus travels from house to house alongside St. Nicholas on the evening of December 5th — a night when children, in the days of yore, were especially careful to behave, given the celebration of St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. While children who have been good receive toys and treats on this fabled night, those who have misbehaved are left birch twigs and charcoal, signaling to Krampus that they deserve punishment for their misdeeds. According to legend, Krampus taunts and terrorizes naughty children during the Christmas season by beating them with branches or kidnapping and snatching them to his terrible, charred underworld to be tortured and consumed.
The ancient roots of Krampus are still celebrated to this day in Austria and throughout the Alpine region of Central Europe. During the holidays, Alpine towns host Krampus Runs, were townspeople drape themselves in heavy, black fur coats and don terrifying masks before storming the streets. Accompanied by the benevolent St. Nicholas, they roam the alleys and byways armed with torches, whips, and birch branches. During the celebration, they may heckle and threatened onlookers and scare children and adults alike, oftentimes wrestling them down and throwing them into the snow — all in the spirit of tradition.
Celebrating Krampus has re-emerged in mass popularity in the last several years, particularly in the US and Canada, where Krampus had almost disappeared from the sanitized holiday season, and from mainstream consciousness generally. While locals familiar with the tradition have always viewed it lightheartedly, in keeping with festivity and the season’s spirit of goodwill to humankind, others are concerned with the social implications of revitalizing acts of terror in new geopolitical arenas. In areas where Krampus runs are making a comeback, refugees and newcomers may not understand the tradition’s implications, and may misinterpret them.
In recent years, towns and villages that host Krampus events have made conscious efforts alongside authorities to organize visits to refugee homes ahead of time, explaining the origin and history of the event to families beforehand to allay any worries or fear when the festivity begins. Understanding Krampus has become part of the process of social acclimation in these regions.
Inter-cultural communication over events featuring Krampus have proved useful as a point of inflexion between local community members and settling refugees, giving newcomers the opportunity to participate in and enjoy customary and seasonal traditions. This instance proves that cultural customs can form connections between social groups. Although Krampus is a longstanding and faded Christmas tradition, his origin can be traced to Norse mythology and has nothing to do with Christianity. According to Justin Nolan, scholars have traced his roots to the son of Hel, who reigns over the underworld.
While Krampus perseveres to this day, Nolan points out that it hasn’t always been so popular or accepted. Historically, the Catholic Church has frowned upon celebrations containing any likeness to Krampus, given his verisimilitude to versions of the Devil seen in Euro-American folklore and cinema. Despite the controversy, the tradition is yet again gaining traction in the US and Canada as well. This resurgence has been attributed in part to the legend’s inclusion in a recent comic book series as well as the 2015 holiday horror film, Krampus.
Many experts hypothesize that the growing interest surrounding the dark and shady character stems somewhere within our own impulses, rightly or wrongly, to approach or experience terror on merely a recreational level, in the expressive sense, without real threat of harm, injury, or death. Justin Nolan suggests that for many, the make-believe portrayal of danger in tradition appeals to us now more than ever, because it serves as an effective, expressive escape from “real world” threats and assaults.