In the German-speaking lands, the big day for presents arrives on Dec.5-6, which is the eve and feast day of St. Nicholas. That’s when kids put out empty boots, which miraculously get filled with presents the next day. But it just wouldn’t be Germanic if all went well, and so the good saint — from whose name we derive “Santa Claus” — is accompanied by the Krampus, an evil spirit who tortures those who have been naughty instead of a nice. Here he is, paying a visit alongside jolly St. Nick:
Krampus is a dark counterpart to the jolly Santa. While Santa gives gifts to good children, Krampus whips the bad ones and takes them into his evil lair for more torture. Krampus comes to town the night before St. Nicholas on Krampusnacht to weed out the bad kids in order to make Santa’s gift giving easier. In some countries, drunk men dress up as devils on Krampusnacht and chase kids through the streets which somehow manages to be more horror-inducing than Santa Con. You can see several videos of Krampusnacht on Youtube.
Krampus’ origins stem from Pagan tradition rooted in Norse mythology practiced in northwestern Europe in the days before Christianity. Yuletide itself was a Germanic Pagan tradition celebrating the winter season. Animals were sacrificed to the darker, shorter days and there was a lot of drinking and “celebrating fertility” as they ate the year’s harvest. Early Christians were pragmatic. When trying to convert folks away from their “savage” religions, recruiters adapted some already existing Pagan traditions and put a Christian-spin on it. The Christmas tree? Pagan. Christmas being celebrated on December 25th? An adaptation of Pagan Solstice celebrations. Santa’s judgmental friend Krampus? Very Pagan.
We’ve moved the present-giving to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; Christians believe that Christ was incarnated on the day we celebrate as Christmas (the festival of Christ, a Greek word meaning the “Chosen One” or “Redeemer”), a day that also symbolizes the return of the light as the days grow longer. Krampus reminds us, however, that the forces of darkness and evil are never very far away.