When listening to the radio in December, it’s unlikely to hear holiday songs singing the praises of Krampus: a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who literally beats people into being nice and not naughty.
Krampus isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams: Bearing horns, dark hair, fangs, and a long tongue, the anti-St. Nicholas comes with a chain and bells that he lashes about, along with a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kids down to the underworld…
In Catholicism, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children. His saints day falls in early December, which helped strengthen his association with the Yuletide season. Many European cultures not only welcomed the kindly man as a figure of generosity and benevolence to reward the good, but they also feared his menacing counterparts who punished the bad. Parts of Germany and Austria dread the beastly Krampus, while other Germanic regions have Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht, black-bearded men who carry switches to beat children. France has Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard.
Krampus’s name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, and is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. The legendary beast also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
The legend is part of a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Germany, where Christmas celebrations begin in early December. Krampus was created as a counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, would swat “wicked” children, stuff them in a sack, and take them away to his lair.
According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night of December 5, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. The next day, December 6, is Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (bad behavior).