Holly And Horns: The Origin Of Krampus, The Christmas Boogyman 

Happy December, dear readers! 

As Yuletide fast approaches and the nights settle in, I hope you’re ready to spread some Christmas fear as we take a peek into the darker side of winter celebrations. 

So what better way to begin than with the man who puts the “creep” in Christmas, The Christmas Devil himself: dear, old Krampus.

Who is Krampus?

In Alpine folklore, Krampus is the the goat-like punisher of naughty children – A Yuletide boogyman, if you will. 

He, along with good ol’ Saint Nick, go from house to house on the night of December 5th and review the antics of the family’s children. If they’ve been good, St Nicholas rewards them with small treats, but if they’ve been bad, Krampus deals with them.

And how does Krampus deal with these nasty little brutes you ask? Well, this varies based on the severity of their actions but his methods include thrashing them with his trusty birch rods, eating them alive, drowning them or locking them in his basket to carry them away to Hell where they belong.

History

Krampus made his first definitive appearance in 12th century Alpine traditions, and like all things Christmas, we can probably trace his roots back to pagan folklore, but hold your horses – this isn’t quite as simple as it may seem and we’ll dive into that little rabbit hole below. 

Although the popular imagery of Krampus originated in goofy 19th century greetings cards (known as Krampuskarten), church and governments have tried to repress the inclusion of our horned friend as late as the 1950s. Apparently, there are people out there who believe scaring a child into good behaviour by threatening them with being drowned by a demonic goat-man is “traumatising”. Some people like to ruin all the fun.

Luckily, you can’t keep the old goat down, and the late 20th century saw the resurgence of Christmas’s most lovable weirdo, both in Europe and further afield, leading to Hollywood scares and nightmares in children across the globe.

Today, if ever you find yourself in the Alps in December, be sure to attend the local Krampuslauf (or Krampus Run), which sees all manner of beasties take to the street in precession as part of the mixed Christmas/Winter Solstice celebration. 

The Atmospheric Alps
Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

Origins

Krampus is a bit of an enigma when it comes to deciphering his origins.

Much like Santa, Krampus is probably an amalgamation of different sources, rolled into his own being. Krampus shares many traits with other companions of St Nicholas, including:

  • Belsnickel: the slightly friendlier, human counterpart to Krampus, who rewards good children as well as beating the bad with his birch rods. He is traditionally clad in rags and furs, and sometimes wears a mask with a long (krampus-like) tongue.
  • Knecht Ruprecht: The robe wearing servant of St Nicholas who, rather ominously,  asks children if they know how to pray. If they reply with a “yes”, they are gifted gingerbread and dried fruits. If it’s a “no”, however, Knecht Ruprecht beats them with the bag of ashes he carries. Ruprecht – a German form of Robert, is a common alias for the Devil, similar to the English speaking counterpart of Old Nick.
  • Zwarte Piet/Roetveegpiet: The Dutch companion of St Nicholas, who’s portrayal is entrenched in harmful racial stereotypes. 

However, these companions – each with there own mythology and folklore – can all find their origins with St Nicholas himself, but what of the pre-christian origins of our dear Krampus?

Researchers and online articles seem to promote the fact that Krampus originated as the son of the Norse goddess Hel, although in all my research, I’ve yet to find the source of this claim and I, for one, don’t subscribe to it.

True to his alias as The Christmas Devil, Krampus clearly draws influence from the imagery of the medieval Christian devil, which in turn, was a demonisation of a mix of pagan deities (pun intended). There’s no evidence to suggest that our favourite furry fiend sprung from the womb of a well feared Norse Demi-Goddess as a fully formed devil centuries after the spread of Christianity across Europe. There’s a whole period of evolution missing. 

That being said, I believe there’s another, forgotten influence for the Krampus we all know and love, that is rarely discussed in this context. A partial assimilation of a different Yuletide tradition, which still survives in its original form – the Yule Goat.

The Jolly Old Yule Goat Enjoys A Snack

The Yule Goat

Theorised to have its origins in Norse/Germanic mythology, The Yule Goat is said to be associated with both Thor, who’s chariot was drawn by two goats and the Slavic deity, Dazhbog, who is often represented by a white goat. Coincidently (or not) during Koliada – the Slavic term for Yule – a revealer was said to be dressed as a goat and demand offerings of presents. 

Whatever it’s exact origins, The Yule Goat became a firm fixture in Pre-Christian/Yuletide tradition, and was one of the many disguises people don for a practice known as Julebukking, which involved neighbours receiving visits from disguised friends to guessing their identity. In some traditions the revellers would singing songs in return for sweets or alcohol and a member of the visited household would join the precession to the next house – Similar practices include Wassailing and (my personal favourite) the Mari Lwyd.

But, it is the old Finnish version of this tradition which best reflects the characterises of our common Krampus, as Nuuttipukki – evil spirits represented by men dressed as goats – would go from house to house to demand leftover food and drink. Perhaps these events inspired the modern Krampuslauf?

The goat itself, although my favourite farmyard animal, has a reputation for being cantankerous and bad-tempered. In short, they can be absolute bastards and the personality of the Yule Goat  – particularly the Nuuttipukki – would reflect this. Over the centuries however, he shook off his prickly persona and blossomed into a seasonal gift-bringer, himself assimilating with the being we identify as Santa Claus – in fact the Finnish “Santa Claus”, complete with fur trimmed red robe and long beard, is still called Joulupukki, literally meaning “Yule Goat”. 

What’s Got Your Goat?

Although the metamorphosis from goat to jolly old man may have happened without the influence of St Nicholas, Krampus as we know him, may not have.

As Christianity spread across Europe, it assimilated many pagan traditions, adopting some and twisting the ones that did not suit its tastes, and although many of the how’s and why’s and when’s have been lost to history, we can see the emerging pattern and similarities. The goat was far too heathen a symbol.

Whatever way you slice it, the humble goat has a bad reputation, particularly in a Abrahamic context where it has become associated with sin and the devil. 

A short list of examples of this includes:

  • Matthew 25:3-46 uses the analogy of “Sheep and Goats” – where a flock is divided to represent the the ‘righteous’ and the ‘damned’ respectively.
  • On Yom Kippur, two goats were traditionally selected, one of whom is sacrificed while the other is released into the wilderness, taking with it the communities sins – The origin of the word “Scapegoat”.
  • Pagan deities with associations to goats and often related to fertility and virility, whose features likely inspired the image of cloven hoofed, horned devil.

Had the Yule Goat been an animal with connotations more agreeable to a Christian palate, would it have become a kindly helper of Saint Nicholas, rather than morphing into his devilish companion? 

I Like Goats.
Photo by Ozge Karabal on Pexels.com

Although the Yule Goat is certainly not the only ancestor of our Krampus, I believe there’s the similarities they share can’t go unnoticed when discussing how his pre-christian origins, particularly when many seem so eager to pin it to Hel without so much as a second thought. 

Luckily for us, the Yule Goat, has retained it’s popularity in Northern Europe and Scandinavia and straw ornaments in its likeness are a staple of Christmas decor – Traditionally, these were shaped from the last straw bundled in the harvest, as it was said to contain the spirit of the harvest and ensure it’s return. 

As for Krampus himself, his current renaissance may be a subversive reaction to the increasing commercialisation of Christmas, and a modern audience’s need for a bit of spook to cut through the sickly sweet mush of candy canes and rosey-cheeked elves. 

Then again, I find Krampus a little less creepy than an old man that watches you when you sleep, comes into your room at night through the chimney, and relies on the labour of a sweatshop full of elves, don’t you?

Dr LJ Hawthorn


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