Imagine a Christmas parade, up in hidden villages dotting the Alpine mountains of Germany, Austria, and Northern Italy. But instead of a jolly white-bearded man handing out presents, there are huge half-goat half-demons wearing chains and cowbells, stalking the streets, striking bad children with sticks, and threatening to carry them off and eat them. This is Krampusnacht.
Krampus, from the German root word for “claw”, is a pre-Christian character in Central European folklore. He has long thick dark hair over his body, cloven hooves, and horns like a mountain goat, as well as claws, fangs, and a long pointed tongue, like the classic depiction of a demon or the devil. Krampus was eventually co-opted into the Christmas story, like many other pagan characters and themes. Krampus became the dark counterpart to St. Nicholas, who gives candy and gifts to good little boys and girls. Krampus, on the other hand, whips bad children with birch branches and carries some away in a basket strapped to his back.
Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, takes place the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. In some towns, St. Nicholas and Krampus travel together, with Nicholas giving gifts and Krampus giving coals or bundles of sticks. In other towns, it is just Krampus, running amok, chasing children and putting on a frightening display with drumming, bells, and fire.
In some rural Alpine villages, Krampus still terrifies children and even adults– but in more urban areas, like Salzburg in Austria, Krampus is more playful. In these areas, Krampus has been the theme for popular Christmas greeting cards since the 1800s. Called Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from Krampus), these cards have humorous images of Krampus threatening children or ‘romancing’ women.
The town of Schladming in Austria has the world’s largest Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run. It is an intense event with participants carving gorgeously terrifying Krampus masks from wood, wearing authentic goat skins, and actually smacking parade viewers with sticks and flogs.
Krampus parades have recently become popular in the United States. Philadelphia has one of the oldest Krampus parades in the U.S.. It is now called the Parade of Spirits and takes place in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. It is a family-friendly event with elaborate homemade costumes of various winter spirits, including Krampus.
Krampus’s counterpart, St. Nicholas, is one of the main figures from which our current version of Santa Claus originated. St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop, and patron of seamen, children, and the poor. In Catholic regions, St. Nicholas is dressed as a bishop, with a bishop’s tall hat, rather than a red suit. According to tradition, St. Nicholas brings presents to good boys and girls and keeps a list of who is good and who is bad in his book. If St. Nicholas visits your home, he may ask you to recite a prayer and will give you a treat in exchange.
It is a custom in Germany for children to leave a shoe outside, on the windowsill, or by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. St. Nicholas would leave small gifts in the shoes of good children, and Krampus would leave a rod or stick in the shoe of bad children.
Perchten are pagan creatures that look similar to Krampus, with long hair, horns, and fearsome devilish features, but the Perchten are invoked to banish the malevolent ghosts of winter. The young men who dress up as Perchten, yelling and ringing bells, are enacting an ancient pagan ritual to chase away bad winter spirits. Traditional Perchten costumes are hand-woven from corn leaves and can weigh over 50 pounds, and the hand-carved wooden masks over 65 pounds. Perchtenlauf parades take place between the Winter Solstice and January 6th.
Perchta was once a goddess of the Alpine regions. She appears either as a beautiful young maiden or an old crone. In many traditions, she has one large foot called a swan foot that marked her as a higher being. Perchta would wander the countryside during the 12 Days of Christmas, giving gifts to good boys and girls and gruesomely murdering misbehavers. The Perchten that drive away bad spirits are also called Shiachperchten, Ugly Perchten, and are part of Perchta’s entourage.
Belsnickel is a Krampus-like figure that German immigrants brought to Pennsylvania. Belsnickel wears tattered furs and a mask with a long tongue, and comes to houses with children before Christmas. Belsnickel throws candy and nuts on the floor, and when the children race to pick up the treats, Belsnickel smacks them with a switch. The Belsnickel tradition is still active among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Lutzelfrau, the Yule Witch, is the dark German counterpart to St. Lucia. She punishes children who break the sacred traditions of the Christmas season and gives out sweets to good children on December 13th, Saint Lucia’s Day.
Another great Christmas monster is the Icelandic ogress, Grýla– the Christmas witch. Grýla lives in a hidden cave with her family of monsters, venturing out during the Christmas season to snatch bad children and put them in her stew.
A poem about Grýla from the 13th century reads:
“Down comes Grýla from the outer fields / With forty tails / A bag on her back, a sword/knife in her hand, / Coming to carve out the stomachs of the children / Who cry for meat during Lent.”
In many northern climates, where winter was harsh and dangerous, Jól or Yule was a time of celebrating and family togetherness, but also a time when dangerous trolls, ogres, and spirits would haunt the land. These monsters personified the threat of winter, and some, like Grýla, had the power to control the weather and landscape. Over time, the pre-Christian Grýla became associated with Christmas, as did her monstrous sons, the 13 Yule Lads.
The Yule Lads are kind of anti-Santas. They visit homes for 13 days leading up to Christmas, taking things and causing trouble. The Yule Lads also leave small gifts and sweets, or, if you are naughty, a rotting potato. Þvörusleikir arrives on the 4th night of Christmas and licks your spoons. Pottaskefill arrives on the 5th night and steals the leftovers from your pot. Hurðaskellir arrives on the 7th night and slams doors. Skyrgámur arrives on the 8th night and steals your yogurt. And Bjúgnakrækir, who comes the 9th night, is known as the “sausage swiper”.
The Yule Lads were used to scare children into behaving in times past, but have morphed into cute miniature Santas over time. But Grýla, the ancient powerful ogress, still terrifies Icelandic youngsters.
At its best, Christmas is a sacred and joyous tradition, but perhaps it loses some of its deeper meaning if we insist on just saccharine interpretations and good times. The holiday season is beautiful, but there is also a dark aspect to the sacred winter. Dark spirits creep through the winter landscape, casting long shadows. We light candles and sing and gather our family close around us, and still they prowl. The Perchten drive away the winter ghosts, and the lashes of the Krampus can be outrun or endured. We can escape being devoured by the ghosts, monsters, and ogresses of winter, but it may it may be wise to acknowledge they exist. Participating in traditions, or even creating personal rituals that acknowledge the shadows, may add something meaningful to your holiday celebrations.