As how and why we celebrate the Christmas holiday continues to change, so indeed has the legend and lore of Christmas monsters. Though in modern days, films have twisted the figure of Krampus into a sort of anti-Santa character, his origins in the mountains of Austria and Bavaria had a very different beginning. Let’s explore the history, the legends and the celebrations around Krampus.
The sound of bells jingles clearly in the cold winter night. The sound of footsteps crunching in the snow grows ever louder. Shrieking and laughter draw near, as the little children press their noses against the glass for their first glimpse of St. Nicholas and his dark companions: the Krampus. Will the children’s behavior over the past year deserve presents from the saint or a whipping from the monsters? The children hold their breaths for the verdict. After a stern glance over his list, the saint finds the names of the children and they receive the presents they deserve. The Krampus shriek out to have missed their prey, and St. Nicholas wards them away from the good children, who laugh at the silly shenanigans of the monsters. Perhaps naughty children are awaiting in the next house on the block…
This is an utterly strange idea to those of us in the United States used to the tame and one-sided version of Christmas as a time of happiness, joy and light. The scene of monsters working hand in hand with St. Nicholas is an all but forgotten tradition, with roots going back hundreds of years. Today in Austria, Bavaria, alpine Italy, and Scandinavia the presence of Christmas monsters is a rediscovered tradition now celebrated annually in many different ways.
What is a Christmas monster?
To answer this question we must see how the image and story of Santa Claus have changed over the centuries. Looking past the jolly, cherub image of Santa Claus common in the United States today, Santa’s historic roots reveal a much sterner and strict figure. St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian monk who lived in 3rd century Turkey, is the patron saint of sailors, children, wolves, pawnbrokers and more.
There are few historical details of St. Nicholas’ life, and even the year of his death is debated. He is traditionally celebrated on December 6, and by the Middle Ages, his fame had spread throughout Christian Europe. The real man became entangled with earlier religious beliefs of those areas and his image changed into an old man with a large beard (similar to Odin of Scandinavia) as well as giving him the power of flight.
Today, most of the images we incorporate in our modern Christmas traditions originated as late as the Victorian Era. It began with the makeover of the old, darker tradition with Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem now known as “The Night Before Christmas”. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the standardized image of Santa became a full-size adult, jovial and jolly, dressed in red and driving a flying sleigh pulled by 8 reindeer.
During the Middle Ages, other figures that pre-existed Christianity in Europe joined St. Nicholas as his servants. These Christmas monsters accompany St. Nicholas on his journeys to distribute presents to the good children and punishment to the naughty children. There are many monsters of all shapes and sizes, and they offer varying degrees of mischief and punishment. There is Gryla, the Christmas Witch of Iceland. Her children, known as the Yule Lads, wreak havoc on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Their pet, the frightening Yule Cat, will attack anyone not wearing a new piece of clothing for the holidays.
Frau Perchta, of Germany and Austria hands out both rewards and punishments from December 25 through January 6, and has been known for her grotesque looks. La Befana of northern Italy is an ugly but good witch who leaves presents for children. Belsnickel, still seen in areas settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch, wears tattered clothing and ragged fur. He frightens the naughty and rewards the good. Hans Trapp of Alsace and Lorraine is a monstrous scarecrow sent to scare children into good behavior. And there are still many more!
The most well-known Christmas monster (in the United States today) is that of Krampus. A furry, horned figure wearing chains and bells and carrying a basket and switch, stalks the Christmas festivals of many cities today. In Europe, Krampus is friendly to St. Nicholas and follows his lead on who must be punished. However, there are many misconceptions as to what Krampus is, and what he stands for in the United States. To many people of Christian upbringing, Krampus looks a lot like ‘Satan’ in Medieval art. Descriptions of Satan are vague in the Bible, so the image of Satan was cobbled together using bits and pieces from religions that pre-dated Christianity in Europe. Hoofs of Pan, horns from forest gods, sometimes winged like the fae creatures of old lore.
Although it is clear that though Krampus is portrayed as looking similar, he is not, in fact, demonic. He is a helper to St. Nicholas and encourages good behavior; he does not tempt children into misdeeds. Even the image of Krampus changes from town to town, sometimes taking on more human features than beast, here looking more like an old man, there looking more like a wolf. The term Krampus comes from the Middle German ‘Kralle’ meaning ‘Claw’ and is not an individual’s name. Rather, Krampus is a particular type of creature, and many Krampus often travel together with St. Nicholas.
Krampus originally was not seen as anti-Santa. They work together to promote goodness and discourage naughty behavior. However, that has been changing for many modern people disenchanted by the commercialized version of Christmas we see today. Krampus has been embraced in America by those who are looking for a deeper meaning to the traditional holiday set in the darkest time of the year. He has come to represent the hidden and historic aspects of Christmas.
Why would Krampus be seen in Marietta?
According to Jann Adam’s book ‘German Marietta and Washington County’, people of German heritage were among the earliest white settlers of Ohio. Even before there was a town established, Major Johann Zeigler was stationed at Fort Harmar. He later became the first mayor of Cincinnati. John Heckewelder worked with Rufus Putnam to draw up a treaty with local Native tribes. In 1834, there was a concerted effort to increase the number of people living in Washington County. The early years were riddled with disease, famine and natural disasters, reducing the population and discouraging settlement by the thousands heading west along the Ohio River. Agents were sent to the German-speaking lands to encourage immigration to the Mid-Ohio Valley.
People of German heritage were understood to be hardworking, determined and steady folk, exactly what was needed to help Washington County grow in prosperity. Enticed by the dream of a new life in the untamed wilderness, hundreds of German families arrived in Southeastern Ohio between 1830 and 1860. Families with names such as Peters, Bohl, Biszantz, Wagner, Best, Weber, Kuhn, Lang, Gross, Fischer, Kunz, Wendelken, Schultheiss, Strecker, Braun, Schafer, Seyler, Meister, Otto, Kaiser, Schlicher, Neader, Pfaff, Rodick, Wittlig, Brickwede, Gruber and many more!
Germans in Marietta brought their own culture to the area. In 1859, while the rest of town was celebrating the Fourth of July with somber speeches, the Germans celebrated by throwing parties with singing and drinking. German-speaking newspapers such as the Marietta Zeitung were printed regularly and churches such as the German Evangelical Church at the corner of Fifth and Scammel Streets were built, with services in German until 1919. German-owned businesses flourished, and many of the beautiful, historic homes that exist in Marietta and the surrounding county were built by these prosperous families. Early on, German-speaking families were proud of their heritage and history. It wasn’t until World War One when many families started to abandon their German ties and identify instead as Americans.
How is Krampus celebrated in the old country?
In Austria and Bavaria, regions of Europe where many Marietta families originated, Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) has been a long-established night of Christmas monster fun on December 5. Traditional lore states that Krampus would come the day before St. Nicholas to punish the naughty children. If you survived December 5, you knew you would be rewarded when St. Nicholas day came on December 6. Many times the celebrations centered around Krampus-lore take place side by side with traditional German Christmas Markets. German Christmas Markets consist of dozens of tiny stalls selling Christmas items, trinkets, foods and mulled wine. They have a huge draw and have been taking place for centuries in places such as Salzburg, with origins back to 1491. These southern Christmas Markets are not complete without various forms of Krampus being seen each day.
The culmination of events surrounding Krampus often takes place in the form of the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run) which is a parade of intricately carved Krampus masks and ornate costumes. Holding loud drums and wearing ringing bells, ornery Krampus hold fiery torches and dance and leap menacingly along the parade route. They are often accompanied by St. Nicholas and it is a fun spectacle for families who attend the market. In some regions, multiple Krampus will even visit homes alongside St. Nicholas to distribute gifts (with the threat of punishment) to the children in their town.
Krampus in the United States
While many families of German background kept the traditions associated with Christmas monsters alive, the internet helped spread the tradition found in the mountains of the Alps around the world. Today, Krampus can be found haunting Christmas celebrations in cities across the United States; from Columbia, SC to Dallas, Texas with a Krampus event drawing 3,100 spectators to Bloomington, Indiana in 2015. In Ohio, Columbus throws the ‘Merry Krampus’ festival in early December, Cleveland hosts Krampus Fest and the Germania Society of Cincinnati hosts a Christkindlmarkt featuring Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Saint Nicholas, the Christkind and Krampus.
In a place of such strong German heritage as Washington County, it is no surprise that Krampus has finally made his way to town! In an effort to preserve tradition and teach cultural heritage, Hidden Marietta continues to uncover the weird, shocking and spooky side of history. While Krampus looks at first menacing, his shenanigans should be looked upon as fun instead of scary. Many people yearn to understand the darker side of Christmas, and learning how their ancestors would have celebrated gives the modern holiday a historical and authentic basis.
The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil by Al Ridenour
German Marietta and Washington County by Jann Adams
Who Was St. Nicholas? By Nate Barksdale
The Changing Face of Satan, from 1500 to Today by Carey Dunne