You may recognize Krampus from this year’s holiday horror movie with the same name. This post is not about the movie.
It’s about the monster.
The Krampus of Germanic folklore predates the movie by at least four centuries or so. In fact, this Christmas monster may even predate Christmas—or at least, the time when central Europeans began to celebrate it. Like the Christmas tree, Krampus has roots in European pagan tradition. Both were absorbed into Christmas festivities as the pagans began to adopt Christianity.
So what is Krampus?
In the Christian tradition, he’s the bad cop to Saint Nicholas’s good cop. The two often appear together, with Saint Nicholas offering gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad ones. Before he became a Christian fixture he was said to be the Norse god Hel’s son.
Not a guy you want to mess with.
Just look at him. The details vary, but Krampus always has his signature goat horns and long tongue, and he’s often shown with at least one goat’s hoof. Christians quickly linked this pagan imagery to the devil. They added chains to his appearance to represent the devil’s imprisonment—I guess having a demonic monster roaming free was a little more than they could stand adding to their Christmas festivities.
Okay, he’s bad Santa… so what’s so scary about that?
First I’d like to point out that even good Santa can be pretty creepy.
- He is always watching you.
- He gets to decide whether you meet some arbitrary threshold of being “good” enough.
- Even if you’ve been good, he still breaks into your house in the middle of the night.
But Santa is a good guy, right? He would never abuse this power. Santa is a benevolent arctic overlord. The worst he’s going to do is deny you presents.
This is about the creepiest that he gets:
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Let’s take a closer look at that final line. There’s an implied threat there, isn’t there? What exactly happens to you if you aren’t good?
Krampus. Krampus happens.
Krampus changes that fairly innocent implication from “boo hoo, no presents” to “oh god I’ve been abducted by a demon goat monster and maybe it’s hungry???”
Unlike the line in the song, there’s nothing vague about what Krampus does to bad children. He’s known for carrying birch branches to beat children with—but that’s only the lucky ones. He is also said to kidnap misbehaving children and eat them or even hand-deliver them to Hell.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather deal with a lump of coal.
Krampus is not all horror and hellfire, though. His persona among adults is less terrifying and more mischievous. He’s common on greeting cards—sometimes sinister, like the above, and sometimes as a lecherous goofball chasing after busty ladies.
Adults also participate in a krampuslauf, or Krampus run, which is basically like trick-or-treating but with alcohol. No, really. They put on scary Krampus costumes, get drunk, and run around town soliciting schnapps from their neighbors.
I don’t know about you folks, but I call that a Tuesday.
*two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff*
So that’s the legend, now what do we all do with it? Besides hide under our covers and regress into Grinch-like bundles of fear, I mean.
Well, folklore can be a great source of inspiration for writing or game-making. For example, I once used elements of the Krampus legend to build a Christmas-themed Dungeons and Dragons session, where the party fought off the sinister Nick Jingledagger and his attack reindeer Rotschnoz. It was… not an entirely serious game. But there was a gingerbread castle and an aerial reindeer-mounted battle!
Oh, do you think you can do better than that? Well, let’s see:
Prompt: Reimagine a monstrous version of another benevolent holiday or folklore-based figure. How different are they really? Are there different versions of this story that remix traits of these two figures into one, or some that are more or less sympathetic?
Hope you all have had/are having a great holiday season! I especially hope your holidays have been free of Krampuses. Unless maybe you saw that Krampus movie—which I have not—so let me know your thoughts! How did it connect to the folklore? Drop a note in the comments!