Who travels with St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve? If you live in North America, you’ll almost certainly say that he travels alone, in his sleigh pulled by reindeer. Perhaps an elf or two occasionally tags along, or Mrs. Claus rides shotgun on his nighttime voyage. Unfortunately for youngsters in parts of Europe, Santa Claus also has a more sinister passenger– a terrifying creature known as the Krampus.
Krampus, from the Old High German word for claw, is a frightening monster with goat horns, fangs and long claws. He accompanies St. Niholas in several regions of the world, including Austria, Hungary, Germany, and some regions of Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia and northern Italy. He haunts the neighborhoods (and nightmares) of children in these areas, acting as a sort of anti-Claus.
In areas where youngsters believe in Krampus, the demon arrives during the first two weeks of December, particularly the evening of the fifth, when St. Nicholas also arrives to these areas. Young men dress in Krampus suits and run through the streets with rusty chains and bels, sometimes making unpleasant or scary noises. He also holds a birch wand, which he uses to spank kids who have misbehaved. The Krampus also carries a basket on his back– used, they say, to haul away naughty children and throw them into Hell.
Why would any culture have such a sinister holiday icon? There are several reasons for the tradition of the Krampus. The image of a goat-like creature accompanying Santa predates Christianity. In old pagan religions, Yule was sometimes heralded by a goat– even one on two legs, closely resembling Krampus. Just like Yule logs, holiday trees and lights, the Krampus is a pagan tradition persisting as a component of modern Christianity.
Adults perpetuate this blood-curdling fear for the same reason that they may threaten their children with the boogey-man. Although Santa rewards good children with gifts and candy, the Krampus punishes bad children by whipping them, scaring them, and threatening to send them to Hell. It’s a disturbing image, but probably effective. Most children will respond more quickly to, “The Krampus is going to throw you into Hell,” than “Santa won’t bring you presents if you keep doing that.”
Additionally, although it seems odd to outsiders, children actually enjoy the holiday tradition of the Krampus. Just as American kids love to be scared senseless on spooky Halloween nights, European kids enjoy the fear and anticipation associated with the Krampus. Each year, they feel double-rewarded by their Christmas gifts– not only did the Krampus spare their souls, but St. Nicholas brought them goodies. The nightmarish image persists because, contrary to outside appearances, it is enjoyable to adults and children alike.