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What is Krampusnacht? Santa's Dark Companion

By Edited Apr 17, 2016 1 3

How I Found Out About Krampusnacht:


When I was wished a happy Krampusnacht this December 6th, I had to reply, “What the heck is a Krampusnacht.” You see, like many people, I had never heard of the holiday of Krampusnacht, a German and Bavarian celebration that is something like a cross between Halloween and Christmas. Krampusnacht takes place every year on the sixth day of december in many German towns today, but really comes from Pagan and pre-Christian rituals. I will explain some of the traditions and ways that you can celebrate Krampusnacht in your own home!


Krampus is a christmas demon

What is Krampusnacht?


Krampusnacht is a word meaning “night of the claw” which refers to a mythical goblin or incubus of sorts who scares little children. Known as the Krampus, this horned beast, often found in the skins of sheep it has killed and eaten is the stick to St. Nicolas's carrot. The two travel together to reward and punish the children based on their years behavior. If a child is bad in these villages they don't get coal in their stocking, the Krampus will whip them or even carry them off! Better not pout better not cry, better not shout, I'm telling you why; Krampus (claws) is coming to town! Apparently the good little children still have to wait til Christmas for their gifts.

On the night of the claw, the men of the village get dressed up in costumes of the Krampus, donning sheepskins, goat's horns, and whatever other scary masks, claws and the like they can find. They will carry a little switch that they use to punish children who have been bad (as well as flirtatiously with the women of the town!) and go marauding around for a night. Something of a role reversal for adults and children for halloween (which isn't celebrated in Germany).



The women don't get left out entirely on Krampusnacht, so don't worry if you were jealous at all the fun the men were having. Women get dressed up as the Nordic goddess of fertility, Frau Perchta and also dancing around the town.
An interesting side note to the Krampus legend. For several hundreds of years there have been certain sexual overtones that accompany coming of Krampus. While part of this simply relates to an excuse for young people to be flirtatious in the guise of costumes and playing, incubi have always been sexual in nature. The word incubus comes from the Latin incubo, meaning “to lie upon” and in many cultures is a demon who comes to women in their dreams. There is a female version of the demon as well called a succubus. Modern celebrations of Krampusnacht tend to downplay and even actively discourage this aspect of the holiday, but it persists, particularly in illustrations of the events.




Today Krampusnacht is often celebrated with a Krampuslauf, meaning Krampus run. During this event, hundreds of horned Krampus will run with torches along the main streets of the town, in some places being joined by others dressed as witches or other demonic figures. Since this night is the celebrated the day before St. Nicolas day in the calendar, St Nick is often on hand to take a more godly role, dressed in bishop's robes (he is a saint remember, not just the jolly Santa Claus!). In fact, Krampus.com has some choice words about the American conception of the Santa living in the North pole and claims that Krampusnacht was coming back into style. Noting that in older tellings of Father Christmas, St Nick or whoever, there was always a “dark companion” to the jolly saint, and he never had the role of punishing children. However, when the Santa moved up to the freezing north, something must have changed in his heart since “also tried to take over the dark companion’s job of punishing the naughty, but his New World temperament was apparently unsuited for the task. As Santa neglected and abandoned his punishing duties, American kids lost all fear of Santa and his lumps of coal. Thankfully, in the 21st century, Krampus has arrived in this land of spoiled and dissatisfied children to pick up the slack.”


Father Christmas
Credit: ilovebeardsalot.blogspot.com


Krampus does indeed seem to be spreading its Xmas devil across the world. There are now celebrations of Krampus all over Europe as well as in the United States. I suspect that the increased acceptance of this ritual might have something to do with the traditional amount of drunkenness involved, but who knows. It also probably benefited from the “Colbert Bump” after a Krampus visited The Colbert Report in 2009. There are large organized festivals of Krampusnacht in Portland, San Francisco, and several other major cities in the United States.

This leads us to the question, why do people seem to need for a “dark side of Christmas?” When I was growing up Christmas was always a time when there was very little negative floating around in the air. Maybe movies like A Nightmare Before Christmas leave people with a innate sense that there is something missing in their december celebrations. It is clear that in most other cultures, particularly in the past, Santa had a mischievous, if not outright evil counterpart. Winter and solstice has been a time where a little bit of chaos is allowed to reign going all the way to the celebrations of Saturnalia in ancient rome which started around year 200 BCE. All throughout the ages, devil figures, incubi, “Wild Men,” have taken their place next to St. Nick, in such famous stories as the Brothers Grimm Tales.


Krampus and child
Credit: amoeba.com


One truly American incorporation of a darker Christmas figure is in the Pennsylvania Dutch character of Pelznickel. Pelznickel, also known as Ashenklas or Ru Klaas is a sterner version of Santa. His name means “Nicholas in Ashes, or “Rough Nicholas and came about during the Protestant Reformation to be a non-saintly Nick. This was due to the ban on honoring saints. He didn't spare the rod, and only occasionally gave out candy. What a terrifying time to be a kid!


Santa and Krampus
Credit: laurenarcher.wordpress.com


If Christmas is too happy for you, (or you just want to a chance to get dressed up in scary clothes as an adult, maybe it's time to find a Krampusnacht celebration near you. If you have been to a Krampusnacht event, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!




Dec 7, 2011 7:16pm
Totally awesome piece. Excellent graphics as well.
Dec 7, 2011 7:20pm
Thanks Vic, your writing about the "unusual and forgotten" actually sort of inspired this piece, so that means a lot!
Dec 7, 2011 7:20pm
This comment has been deleted.
Mar 21, 2012 8:16pm
Very interesting article but I will have a nightmare tonight for sure!
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