There is a difference between Saint Nicholas being good and being moral. While most people could agree that his actions sit more on the positive end of the spectrum,—modern versions have him rewarding good children, giving presents, spreading holiday cheer, etc.—classic legends say otherwise. Folklore suggests St. Nicholas is a benevolent character, but present day interpretations might not define all his choices as such. Every student who has ever attended a bullying-awareness day or presentation of any sort will easily know why: Saint Nicholas was a bystander, and for a creature far, far worse than your average tormentor.
This is where the traditional tale of the Krampus comes in. Born from Pagan mythology in Alpine countries, the Krampus is most commonly known as St. Nicholas’s antithesis and partner. While the name, sometimes spelt “Grampus,” is derived from the old German word for claw, the creature has been known to go by many different names. In Southern Germany he is Pelzebock or Pelznickel; in Silesia (a province in the east of Germany), he is Gumphinckel. One of the first incarnations of the beast came from Austria, where he went by Klaubauf. And in the Hungarian mythology, where the Krampus is not just one demon but a species, the race goes by Krampusz.
While contemporary adaptations depict the Krampus as similar to the Devil (red skin, pitch fork, the works), his traditional depiction is actually more bestial. The Krampus generally has brown or black fur, cloven hooves, horns, and a trademark lolling tongue. He can carry long swathes of chains to beat upon the ground, bells to signal his arrival and, in early Pagan interpretations, bundles of birch branches called ruten to injure children. The Krampus mythology is meant to terrify and to uphold the disturbing belief that fear leads to obedience.
The lore of Krampus depicts his torture as often physical, resulting in unruly children being cast down to Hell. It could, and has, involved the Krampus sadistically leading children off cliffs, having them beg for mercy, or downing them in ink only to fish their bodies out by pitchfork. Where the tradition began as an extension of St. Nicholas, wherein the two would visit children in tandem to decide their fate, the Krampus has grown into something much broader. The Kramus’ folklore is parallel to St. Nicholas’s, rather than being a smaller component of it. He is now celebrated in his own right.
The night prior to the Feast of St. Nicholas is dedicated to the Krampus. December 5th, otherwise known as Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, is an annual event where impersonators of the demon are said to roam the streets. They terrorize homes, businesses, and are predominantly very intoxicated. The specific name for this is called Krampuslaufren: wherein partygoers dressed as the Krampus (or other devil variations) go through the streets trying to terrify children and adults alike. While the tradition began in Austria, Northern Italy and other parts of Europe, it has recently spread to being popular in Finland and France, as well as some American cities.
Mythology is hardly ever entirely pleasant. There is always someone intrigued by the things that go bump in the night, that hide under your bed or that live in your closet. This is neither positive nor negative: there is something comforting about intimately knowing the dark, even if by doing so you justify your fear. Perhaps the mythology of the Krampus is there to fill the void between good children and bad children, but it might be more than that. Perhaps the dichotomy of St. Nicholas and the Krampus exists because not all good people get good things. Through mythology this can be changed: those children and adults who do good in the world are rewarded, while those who are hateful are punished. The Krampus’s apparent sense of justice is still twisted and sadistic, but it might give some closure to the ‘why’ behind the creation of the myth.
– Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi