What happens when coal isn’t bad enough for a naughty boy or girl? In this chapter of ORIGINS, we look at Krampus the Christmas Devil and other dark figures from Germanic European lore.
I was first introduced to Krampus through the 2015 film of the same name. The thought that naughty kids could earn themselves something worse than coal in their stockings was a new concept to me and I loved it! Kids can be bratty and worse. They can even wish their family could disappear (and look at all the trouble that cost Kevin McAlister in Home Alone!) And what has always frustrated me is that around Christmastime, kids decide to be kind and helpful all to gain more Christmas presents and make sure they remain (or get) on Santa’s “nice” list. How fair is that for all those kids who worked hard all year to be nice?
Enter Krampus, the devil of Christmas.
Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon who further emphasizes the fact that if you rearrange the letters in SANTA you get SATAN. Traditionally, he visits the homes of boys and girls tagging along with St. Nick on December 5th, and while old Santa Claus fills the good kids’ shoes with candy, Krampus leaves birch twigs in the shoes of the naughty ones. Others say that December 5th belongs to Krampus alone and those who survive are blessed with a visit the following night by St. Nick, who rewards the good kids with presents. During the Christmas season, bad kids are beat with these birch twigs, while some even disappear altogether. Krampus stuffs his massive sack with these children, carries them down into his dark, dank lair where he tortures them and even eats them, though I’m sure they must provide awful indigestion, being so “bad.”
Dating back to pre-Germanic paganism, the name Krampus translates to “claw” from the ORIGINS of the word krampen, and he is the son of the Norse goddess of the Underworld, Hel, making Krampus Loki’s grandson. This European demon is still celebrated with annual festivals in places such as Lienz, Austria through a parade where townspeople dress in nightmarish garb and goat head masks to honor (or maybe to try and keep out) the Christmas ghoul. In the Krampuslauf, or “Krampus Run,” participants wave cow bells, wear fur costumes, and don wooden masks, seen throughout Europe and even into America, with places like Orlando, Florida, getting into the fun with their own annual run. His resemblance to the devil, to include long horns and goat-like beard, even caused the Catholic church to institute banning the Krampus celebration in the 12th century.
Krampus is an ever-present reminder that there is good and evil in everything. Call it Yin or Yang of Christmas or the devil and the angel on your shoulder, we all face our own duality where we may even wonder at times if we will be visited by Santa or Krampus, depending on our own behavior. With one hoofed foot and one human foot, Krampus exhibits an element of humanity beneath his animalistic demonic front, which makes him even scarier. That which is part human reminds us that evil lurks inside us all, even in the smallest part. To remind children to behave, some families keep Krampus statues or paintings on the walls. I wonder if the elf on the shelf works for the demon of Christmas or his happy counterpart? Makes me rethink having that elf staring at me during the holiday season.
The truth of it all is none of us are deserving. We all showcase behavior worthy of gifts at times and that which is so vile we try and hide it even from ourselves. Our thoughts may be our own, but supernatural entities might be able to read our minds. I know we are talking about Krampus, but this inability to redeem ourselves is the real reason for the Christmas season.
As mentioned, the film was extremely well done. Here’s a blurb from sheknows.com: 11-year-old Max Engle (Emjay Anthony), is urged by his German grandmother, Omi (Krista Stadler), to write a letter to Santa, keeping his Christmas spirit alive. But Max unleashes the wrath of Krampus when he tears up his letter to Santa out of frustration in dealing with his dysfunctional family. The movie was very creepy and included lots of 80s style gore, you know, that over the top type that’s god awful and way fake…the kind we love, right? There are also homicidal gingerbread men, and I remember them almost more than I remember Krampus. Here’s why. In 2016, I went to Halloween Horror Nights for the first time. One of the houses was a Krampus themed house, and it truly scared me to death. Yes, it was scary because it felt like I was really walking through someone’s home and of course each time the goat-horned demon poked out his horrid head I screamed bloody murder. But worse than that was the paradox my senses were forced into. On the one hand, I was filled with fear by what my eyes saw and what my ears heard. On the other hand, the delicious scent of gingerbread filled the air, bringing me back to the safety and calm of my childhood.
But there was a goat demon stalking among my gingerbread dreams.
Now, whenever I think about Krampus, I smell gingerbread and whenever I smell gingerbread, I think of Krampus. Christmas and cookies will never be the same.
In Norther Germany, a hooded specter named Knecht Ruprecht plays the dark companion to St. Nicholaus. Wearing a brown or black fur robe, he is first mentioned in the Middle Ages in writing, though it is believed his roots grow deeper than this. A fearful figure with a long beard riding a white horse, Knech Ruprecht carries a bag of chocolate, peanuts, gingerbread, and mandarin oranges alongside a second bag of ashes and switches to punish naughty children, although by the 17th century he had abandoned the Dark Side to team up with Santa.
Another figure in Germanic lore is known as Black Peter, so named because of the layer of soot covering his body from sliding down chimneys. A darkly, impish figure, his ORIGINS place Black Peter as a distant relative to the house elf, a common character who punishes misdeeds to keep an orderly home, which in this case pertains mainly to bad children. In Holland, Black Peter is known as Zwarte Piet, though this character is creating quite a buzz for being racially inappropriate as the Dutch traditionally paint their faces black and their lips bright red to emulate the look of this historical Moor from Spain.
While the traditional Krampus was a furry goat-like satyr, his contemporary version differs. Some are yeti-like with faces having cavernous mouths, multiple horns, and huge heads. Others are depicted in red body paint looking much more like the devil on your shoulder than any animal or imp you’ve ever seen. Straw suited and more like teddy bears, Krampus cosplay in Tyrol takes on a whole new look. Still others depict Krampus as shapeless, like the Boogey Man (mentioned in a previous chapter of ORIGINS on The Men We Love). In all cases, one thing is consistent: Krampus serves a serious function, no matter what he looks like.
Frau Perchta or the Christmas Witch is another dark character associated with winter time Germanic European lore. Perchta frightens misbehaving children with her ancient Yule feasts culminating from late December to early January. But this German goddess did more than punish naughty kids. She was known as the belly-slitter, an attribute that would definitely keep me in line if I believed. Like Krampus, she represents the duality of man and is even described as being violent and kind, old and beautiful. Some lore says she visits children on the 12th night of December delivering silver coins to well-behaved children while they sleep, and slipping more to hard working young servants in the house too. The ORIGINS of the name Perchta (or Berchta) mean bright one and refers to the Feast of Epiphany. Her nature is of a wild forest dweller and she has since become embodied in either a flowing white gown or furs and masks. In Medieval times, people would even leave food on their porch stoop for Perchta, I guess in the same way kids leave cookies and milk for Santa. Associated with the spinning wheel, she has a touch of Rumpelstiltskin in her lore as she aids people in spinning or can prevent their timely project completion. Distinctions between Frau Perchta and Krampus have long ago been blurred as they are both known to be mid-winter creatures of the woods who embody fate and are able to control the souls of the dead.
Does Krampus really exist? I’d like to say no, but you and I both know that’s not how things roll on this podcast. Let’s take a look at a particularly recent Krampus sighting.
In November of 2015, a paranormal hotline received a phone call from a family in Massachusetts. The caller stated in a panicked voice that his home was being haunted by the goat-horned Krampus and his evil imp counterpart, a gnome named Limey. The family had been imprisoned in their own house for a very long time and only felt the courage to share their story after seeing the movie preview for Krampus. Three children lived in the house, two boys and a teenage girl who played with Ouija boards. One cold night, the daughter and her two friends had asked the spirit living in their home to spell out its name. The girls held the marker tight as it slid to the K and then to the R, back to the top for an A, and so on until the name Krampus was proclaimed. Not wanting to sound foolish, the father mentioned that he knew Krampus was fictional, and thought instead maybe a different demon was using the name Krampus.
Oh, that makes it so much better. Not…
The final straw came one night, when the boys slept in their shared room. They awoke to a knocking sound coming from inside their closet. The brothers shivered and the youngest hopped into bed with the older, waiting for any sign that the knocking would continue or cease. It happened again, harder and louder, pounding from inside the closet. The boys screamed, and the father burst into their room to check on his sons. The boys pointed to the closet, the younger with tears streaming down his reddened cheeks. Carefully, the father crept to the door, placed an ear to the wood and listened. He heard nothing. He turned the metal nob slowly and opened the closet on rusty hinges to face a coal dark room. He moved closer, searching, when suddenly a pair of red eyes swarmed from the closet right through the father’s chest ripping through like dry ice out his back. The panicked family left their home that Christmas Eve (after the daughter swore she saw a red-eyed, goat-horned monster near the tree), and when they returned from their Florida vacation, their house had been burned to the ground.
Is it truth or an attempt for a story to go viral after a movie launched? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, where myth and science meet; written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. You can learn more about my books, read show notes, and study this topic through provided links by visiting podcastORIGINS.com. Please follow on all social media @theWRITEengle. I follow back. As always, subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. I’ve also opened a Patreon account. If you like what you hear, consider donating a buck a month to say thanks. And finally, stick around and be dazzled by a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “Absolution” that touches on the nature of the duality of man, even when the atonement requires someone else to pay.
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