Thanks to the internet, popular American understanding of European Christmas traditions has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decades. There’s also confusion too, some of it swirling around that wily old devil, Krampus.
Accompanying St. Nicholas on his gift-giving rounds to direct a little switch-swinging intimidation toward the naughtier kids, the Krampus has become the most well-known of other Central European characters playing a similar role. Originally appearing under that name in Austria (St. Nikolaus) and Southern Germany, his distinctive devilish appearance is not easily confused with Northern Germany’s hooded Knecht Ruprecht or Holland’s “Moorish” Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”).
It was in 2004, that collector Monte Beauchamp launched a series of books that did much to familiarize Americans with Krampus via reprinted collection of turn-of-the-century Krampus postcards. Thanks to these images, most Atlas Obscura readers will probably be able to describe Krampus: a distinctly satyr-like devil with dark fur, and incessantly slithering tongue.
But then videos showed up to confuse the issue.
As videos made their way from German-language YouTube channels to American blogs, we became acquainted with another more brutish creature represented by costumed young men herding together as part of a Krampuslauf or “Krampus run.” These shaggy Yeti-like creatures with gaping jack-o-lantern jaws and enormous heads crowned by massive horns in multiple configurations made the postcard devils appear rather diminutive, almost gentlemanly by comparison.
Clearly, these videos represent a more contemporary phenomenon than the postcard fad of bygone days. So do the cards depict the Krampus in his purer, original form? What should a “real” Krampus look like?
There’s nothing like trying to put together a Krampus costume to add urgency to this question. Alongside co-Krampus Al Guerrero, I am currently helping to organize a Krampus run as well as other costumed outings in Los Angeles. We have more than a dozen people sculpting masks and handcrafting costumes weft by weft, each of them striving to create that “real” Krampus look. And our group is not alone. Philadelphia and Portland preceded us by a couple years, and all the while we are learning of new groups in Bloomington, Indiana; Detroit; Elgin, Illinois; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Omaha, Nebraska; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Providence, Rhode Island; Richmond, Virginia; Saint Louis, Missouri; Washington, DC; and Ypsilanti, Michigan. So there are lots of people asking: “What should a Krampus really look like?”
The Krampus turns out to be more defined by function than appearance. You don’t recognize him so much by visible traits as by what he does. In areas of the Tyrol, for instance, there is a breed of Krampus appearing in a voluminous straw suit resembling a monstrous teddy bear, and in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, there is another straw devil accompanying St. Nicholas, a type of Krampus called the Buttnmandln.
Long before the circulation of any postcards standardizing the image, the isolating Alpine terrain of Krampus’ native habitat encouraged strong regional variations. And without any grounding source text to nail down his appearance, the original Krampus would have been a shapeless bogeyman defined only by oral tradition, a freeform figure variously described by parents and other storytellers. Like the Tooth Fairy, he had a definitive function, but no definitive form.
Whenever the first adults — through whatever combination of playfulness and cruelty — decided to dress up as the first Krampus, they would have created a monster defined by whatever easily available materials could be used for a startling effect. In some cases those materials were the horns and pelts of mountain goats, and in others, straw or hay set aside as winter fodder. Today, though some costumes may be produced by mass production, they still imitate the look established by materials regionally available in Alpine valleys.
We don’t have pictures of the very first Krampuses, but vague written accounts mentioning pelts and horns date back to the 17th century. To what extent modern Krampuslauf costumes resemble those first costumes is unknown, but it’s a good bet they’re closer to the original than images created by 19th century artists hired to render postcards.
Costumed Krampus activities originated in Alpine valleys and spread rather slowly to urban areas, so artists working with printers in bigger cities had quite possibly never seen anything called a Krampus and therefore relied for inspiration on traditional imagery of the Devil (or more likely competing postcard artists). Another factor that likely influenced the character’s satyr-like appearance was the fin de siècle obsession with Pan, a favorite contemporary subject for painting, sculpture, early fantasy novels (The Great God Pan), and even children’s books (The Wind in the Willows).
If the Krampus’ primary function is to at least threaten to carry off naughty children, why should bells on the costumes be more common than baskets to take away bad kids? While it makes no sense in context of his service to St. Nicholas, it illustrates the Krampus’ connection to a pre-Christian tradition. The ringing of bells, and use of other noisemakers, like the lighting of bonfires, was a pagan practice intended to alternately drive off and attract certain spirits (good or bad) wandering the earth at pivotal points in the year. This practice was preserved in the Christian era through the tolling New Year’s bells, fireworks, and British Christmas “crackers.”
Conveniently for the Church, there already happened to be a pre-Christian figure administering rewards and punishments at the turning of the year. Nudging pagan year-end traditions up a few weeks to coincide with the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 allowed a fusion of traditions. In Alpine areas, the figure bringing rewards and punishments was Frau Perchta, and her entourage, wandering the earth between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6), were called the Perchten.
Among them, the Schiachperchten or “bad Perchten” are visually all but identical to the costumes worn to represent Krampus. We know this because just as there are Krampus runs, there are also contemporary Perchten runs, which feature a greater variety of fantastic costumes and folkloric characters, and yet are far less familiar to Americans.
Obviously, those of us in these seedling Krampus groups across the United States, like readers of this site, may find a certain dark humor in images of children terrorized by Krampus. However, it’s not the ostensible goal of scaring kids straight that draws us to the figure. While that may have been the Church’s purpose in absorbing the “bad” Schiachperchten figures into the Krampus, many in our community are more charmed by the more ancient pre-Christian traditions this figure conjures.
His pagan origins, well understood in Europe, and intuited by many Americans, tend to be heartily embraced within American Krampus groups. Founder Amber Stopper of the pioneering Philadelphia Krampuslauf costumes herself and identifies as Frau Perchta (Leader of the Perchten), as does Los Angeles troupe member Tamara Rettino. As the American Krampuslauf movement grows, by extending a sort of Halloween festivity into December, watch for the first Perchtenlauf (“Running of the Perchten”) to eventually extend December’s Krampus thrills into January.
Al Ridenour is the director of Krampusfest, LA's largest celebration of the folkloric Alpine devil.