A fresh blanket of snow glistens in the cold light of the moon, a contrast to the warm glow of street lamps, wrapping the city streets in the cozy blanket of early winter. Twinkling across the surrounding fields in the night, mirroring the light of the moon in a million broken rays, the landscape was nevertheless stark beyond the forests surrounding the city.
The creatures come from there, beyond the city, thickly furred and sharply clawed, from dank caves and deep, dark, ancient places. Some have feet and some have cloven hooves, some one of each; the thick layer of snow softly crunching under feet and hooves both in a smudge of sound as they scatter across the landscape and towards the small, neat houses. Their faces, pallid and gnarled and very nearly demonic, turn from moon-silver to a pale bronze as they approach the warmly-lit city streets, chains and bells clinking gently as they draw near.
Shadows, already inky black from their very edges, do not get darker as the light recedes between trees and in corners of houses and under benches in the comfortable city, but denser. Even the shadows sense their coming, and draw back within themselves.
They begin to approach the houses, spreading out across the quiet, sleepy town as freshly hatched spiders spreading darkly across a pristine concrete wall.
There are a lot of misconceptions about our friend, the Krampus; or rather, our friends. Despite the treatment of Krampus in much of North American Krampus myth, for much of the world “Krampus” (plural: krampusse) refers to an entire species rather than a singular creature, and they travel in troupes. The name for the creatures comes from the German word for “claw,” a name which gives the hearer precisely the spirit of the thing. They are tall, long and looming and covered with a coarse, dark fur and crowned with vicious-looking twisted horns. Their faces only are free of fur, but ghastly long unnatural faces they were, diabolical and almost caprine. Some have long tails, some have cloven hooves at the end of their strong legs, others one cloven hoof and one human foot. They carried switches, fashioned of willow or birch twigs in depictions, though almost always made of horse hair during live celebrations.
For, in Alpine regions, krampusse are very much celebrated. The Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”) is a sort of mad, nightmarish surreal parade done on Krampusnacht (“Krampus night”), and is held on 5 December; it precedes, appropriately, the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December.
During the Krampuslauf, troupes of krampusse roam the wind-swept streets, snow-dusted and barren, knocking on doors and harassing passersby. Sometimes they conspicuously leave a switch in the homes for parents of misbehaving children, more as an implied threat to behave more than with any real expectation that they’ll be used, or they gently whip those passersby with their soft switches.
The oldest, most traditional form of the Krampuslauf is practised in Gastein Valley, Austria. In Bad Gastein, troupes of krampusse roam the streets on Krampusnacht, each led by a costumed St. Nicholas. There is no officiating body organizing the Krampuslauf, and over time a ritual known as the rempler has developed. This is a cartoon-ish, over-the-top brawl between troupes when they cross paths in the streets, for the entertainment of onlookers. Krampuslauf were traditionally performed by men, though as time passes women are becoming increasingly more involved. In past centuries, women were related to crafting the gift bags bestowed upon the homes visited by Nicholas and feeding the participants. Women started occasionally filling the role of St. Nicholas sometime in the 1970s, and since then have appeared as witches.
The origins of the krampus are unclear. Certainly they have pagan origins. They (or he, in the North American view) are said by some to have come from the Norse gods, a son of death goddess Hel, trickster god Loki, or a relative to the norse Yule Goat, the latter being a creature that, much like the krampusse, terrified children.
The German-speaking world were not the only ones with a dark, scary creature lurking just outside the light cast by their fireplaces, though.
The French have Hans Trapp, the Christmas Scarecrow. Based (very loosely) on a real nobleman, he was said to be unhinged, enamored with money and power hungry. There wasn’t any amount of wealth that would satisfy him, or any level of control that was enough for him. And so, he made a deal with the devil, as you do. He was excommunicated when word of his Mephistophelian bargain, and Trapp descended yet more deeply into madness as he fled his home, bereft entirely of power and wealth, and into the Balkans. He concealed himself along the scarcely-traveled rural roads by disguising himself as an ordinary scarecrow, attired in threadbare rustic clothing and straw, and waited for solitary wanderers to prey upon. He caught a young boy in this manner, murdered him, and hauled his poor carcass to his dwelling and prepared to roast and consume the child. God smote Trapp on the spot, killing him, but his spirit remains, wandering the earth dressed in his scarecrow guise and ready to seize disobedient children and drag them back to his lair.
In South Wales they practise the ancient Wassailing tradition of Mari Lwyd, whose true origins have long since been lost, though both a nativity story concerning a pregnant horse and the birth of Jesus, and a Celtic tradition of ghostly white or grey horses being able to cross the barriers between this life and the next, have been suggested. The Mari Lwyd itself is a hobby horse, topped by a (real) horse skull, decorated with flowers and ribbons and cloaked in white (which has the effect of hiding both the long pole to which the horse’s skull is fixed, as well as hiding the person manipulating it). Mari Lwyd is carried through the darkened streets of cities and towns over the twelve days following Christmas, accompanied by varying folk characters, and going from house to house, either singing Welsh songs (wassails) or participating in a light-hearted exchange of insults with the family. If the celebrants gain entry, luck is bestowed upon the home for the rest of the year. Sometimes they drink all your beer.
That little bit of darkness in the seasonal festivities in the Alpine areas, as clearly in other areas of Europe, was such a delight to the people that they began to send one another krampuskarten (“Krampus cards”) upon the advent of German postcards, introduced by Heinrich von Stephan as “mailing card” in 1865 and formally adopted as a “correspondence card” in 1869. By the 1880s, sending what we now call postcards was a popular way to send your thoughts to your loved ones, and images of our favourite furry, frightening fiends were being sent to relatives all over the continent. Krumpusse for centuries and centuries were confined to the Alpine regions of Europe: Austria, the Balkans, and Southern Germany, but these postcards changed all that. Somehow, despite this, North America was largely ignorant of this wave of dark furry demons overtaking the bright glitter of Christmas until 2004, when artist Monte Beauchamp brought Krampus to North America by means of his books of Krampuskarten.
The Krampuskarten was extremely helpful in spreading the love of Krampus beyond the borders of Bavaria, but it had an unintended side effect, as pointed out by Krampus expert Al Ridenour, in that by and large the urban artists creating the cards were not the same people who were participating in the Krampuslauf in the rural communities. As such, the artists weren’t necessarily familiar with the creatures in question, and over time the krampusse began to become more and more demonic, culminating in the increasing identification of the krampusse with the Christian devil or the great god Pan, and resulted in an interpretation of Krampus as the evil against the good Santa, in an echo of the divine conflict of the Bible.
After the introduction of Krampus by Beauchamp in 2004, North America began to adopt Krampus as their own. There were reports of a Krampuslauf in Philadelphia in 2011, and Brom added to the mythology in his own tale of Krampus the Yule Lord in 2012. Several smaller budget Krampus films preceded Universal’s 2015 Krampus, starring Adam Scott and Toni Colette, with a strong message of belief in the spirit of the holiday in the end.
That strong message of belief is, arguably, an important part of Krampus lore, both in North America and in Europe. There are whispered stories of krampus eating children, but the Krampus troupes only use light switches, and in many places, like Bad Gastein, the krampus aren’t in opposition to Santa Claus but work alongside him.
The truth is, krampusse aren’t all bad. Large, clawed, furry, horned beasts that live in dark places are scary, particularly to small children, but aside from the contrast between dark and light and the reminder to appreciate things by comparison, there’s a history of using disguise to chase away evil; think of Hallowe’en masks and Korean masks used to ward off evil. The krampusse sometimes wear bells and sometimes clinking chains, and this is said to imply ensnarement to the devil, but this pre-Christian race of creatures might instead have a different purpose: The ringing of bells, simply put, chases away bad stuff.
There are, surely, less bestial ways and terrifying ways to use the magic of sound to chase away spirits that would harm us: there are, after all, guardian bells and witchbells and church bells. In North America and much of Europe, at least, we cherish a number of Christmas songs and carols involving bells, such that they’re virtually inseparable from the season itself. Perhaps, then, there’s something in our natures, something very old and very primal, that cannot forget what’s always lay just beyond the fire, in the darkness, waiting for us. Perhaps the fire is that much warmer, our food that much sweeter, by contrast to the phantoms outside in the blowing winter snow.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Alchemist., The. “Witch Bells and How to Use Them.” Magical Recipes Online, 19 May 2019. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Armstrong, Patti Maguire. “An Exorcist Explains Why the Devil Hates Bells So Much.” NCR. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Billock, Jennifer. “The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 4 December 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Brom. Krampus: the Yule Lord. Harper Voyager, 2012.
“Devils – Afraid of Bells.” Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Hart, Sandra Merville. “Ten Christmas Songs That Mention Bells.” Sandra Merville Hart, 6 December 2018. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
History.com Editors. “Halloween.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 18 November 2009. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Hix, Lisa. “You’d Better Watch Out: Krampus Is Coming to Town.” Collectors Weekly, 11 December 2012. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Little, Becky. “Meet Krampus, the Christmas Devil Who Punishes Naughty Children.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 5 December 2018. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Littlechild, Chris. “The Terrible Tale of Hans Trapp, the Christmas Scarecrow.” Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, 8 December 2020. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Loh-Hagan, Virginia. Krampus: Magic, Myth, and Mystery. Cherry Lake Publishing, 2019.
“Guardian Bells.” Motorcycle Minds, 28 November 2019. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Pandza, Tina. “The German Postcard Craze: Then and Now.” DW.COM, 21 Sept. 2007. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
Raedisch, Linda. The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year. Llewellyn, 2013.
Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. Feral House, 2016.
Rogers, Jude. “The Mari Lwyd.” Wales. Retrieved 5 December 2021.
ABOUT EM HILKER
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.