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The ‘Yin’ to Saint Nicholas ‘Yang’…the real story on Krampus
I love Marvel movies. I don’t think that the boys and I have missed one. They linked to some of my favorite memories. The four of us planning a trip to the movie theaters- the popcorn, candy, the arguments over seating arrangements, the LONG discussions afterward on the Marvel movie’s whole plot and how it ties into the others. Will there be a part 2? I am a big fan of Doctor Strange- my kids not so much. But, by far- I loved the Thor movies. And Loki was my favorite character. I don’t know why. He was always trying to get the upper hand, he was not a good person, but he was funny! What I didn’t know was that the whole movie is base on Norse mythology.
Last night another sleepless night, and the only person awake was my friend Google…so we were hanging out over a cup of coffee and ignoring puppy Polar. I was looking up interesting facts about Christmas, in particular strange beliefs and customs. I stumbled on to the tradition of Krampusnacht, Krampus Night, celebrated on December 5th in Central Europe as far back as pre-Christian Alpine tradition. In my research, I kept coming across Loki and his family. Eye opener- he is a real god? Like a real, real, god? Like traditional stories mention Loki? Does he have a family? Will the world never cease to amaze me! But, then, an even bigger surprise! Krampus makes an appearance.
I like Krampus- a good movie that we watched some years ago on Christmas Eve. He is the Yin to Santa’s Yang. A shadow of Saint Nicholas. A demon of Christmas. A wintery devil.
He has become quite popular in recent years. Interesting because his whole ideal is base on a monster who eats naughty children. Let’s put it this way, Krampus’s story is so sensational that the Nazi’s even banned the celebration of him. Between 1934 and 1938, when Austria was under Fascist rule, Krampus was perceived as a representation of sin, anti-Christian ideals, and Social Democrats. The newspaper of the Austrian Catholic Union called for a Krampus boycott. The government of Lienz forbade Krampus dances and further mandated that all aspiring St. Nicholas’s must register with the city. They also promised to arrest Krampus whenever they saw him. Though it didn’t rise to the level of a ban, in 1953, the head of Vienna’s kindergarten system printed a pamphlet calling Krampus “an evil man” and cautioning parents that celebrating him could scar their children for life.
But, never fear! You can not keep a good monster down for long! Krampus now has an American website called the Krampus Army. New York City turns its Blood Manor Scare Factory haunted house into a Krampus-themed terror for one night. Bellingham, WA puts on a Krampus Kon and Seasonal Booze pub crawl. Washington, D.C., does charity events for the foster youth that is called Krampusnacht. Bloomington, Indiana, holds the largest Krampus event in North American called the Krampus Rampage. My favorite city of New Orleans has the Krewe of Krampus with a parade of the Sisters of Shh, icy queens, who warns of Krampus’s arrival. In St. Louis, Missouri, they have a nonprofit educational organization called the Krampus Research Association that furthers Krampus-related studies. Krampus has become a mainstream celebration of Christmas.
But who is Krampus, and how does he tie into Christianity, Christmas, the Norse Goddess of Hell, and Loki, the trickster god?
Krampus has two utterly different histories, five if you look into all the other mythology. But for the sake of arguments, I will boil it down to 2- the German/Norse traditional myth and the Christian tradition. There is not much known about the pagan traditions; they were typically wiped out with modern Christianity development. However, we can look towards Norse, German, Greek mythology, and a few surviving records to put together a general idea.
Old world German- Krampen meant ‘claw’, which might be what his name is derived from. Traditional he is perceived as a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who beats people into being nice and not naughty. The closest connection is pagan festivals celebrated during the winter months, where men would dress up in devilish masks and animal furs and act as a nuisance to the villagers. There is not much to link the Christian holiday of Christmas with Krampus other than the celebration period, typically during the longest days of winter. Still, there is enough there to believe that Krampus and winter solstice were linked together originally. There is some belief that mythology or paganism did not initially form the Krampus tradition, but rather it was a push back against the Christian church and their lack of understanding of the ‘old ways.’
In Austrian culture, the closest belief to the origins of Krampus comes from Perchta, the winter Goddess. She became more well known with her other name- Frau Berchta, which the Brothers Grimm popularized. She is also associated with Berchta, the Germanic goddess of abundance, demonized by the Catholic church and referred to as a witch. You see, Frau Perchta — much like Santa Claus — will reward good children and punish the bad. The Storied Imaginarium tells us that:
She also punishes women for unkempt households and unspun flax. For those she deems good, a silver coin is left for them. If she deems you unworthy, if you forget to leave out a bowl of porridge for her, if your flax is half spun and unfinished, she slits open your abdomen, removes your organs, and replaces them with straw.
She was also associated with the Wild Hunt, flying through the night sky while accompanied by her demonic Perchten — Krampus-looking creatures — and elves and unbaptized babies. During the last three Thursdays before Christmas, you will hear the sounds of thunder and wind roaring, however it is really Frau Perchta leading her Wild Hunt.”
In Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, Goddess to the underworld. The story tells us that Loki had three children from a relationship between himself and a giantess by the name of Angrboda. The children were a snake named Jormungand, a wolf named Fenrir, and a girl named Hel. Loki completed an abysmal ritual on his daughter. He secured her between two trees and immersed half of her body in icy water. Slowly, her skin withered and turned black. Removing his daughter from the water, Loki made her consume a concoction that warmed only half of her body. From this experience, Hel developed the gift of seeing ‘the shadows of the world beyond ours.’ Her body bearing the scars of her terrible ordeal, half alive, half dead, condemned to black and white, Hel became the mistress of the kingdom of the deceased.
Another source says that
youngest daughter of Loki, Hel is described as “a horrible hag, half alive and half dead, with a gloomy and grim expression. Her face and body are those of a living woman, but her thighs and legs are those of a corpse, mottled and moldering.
It is said that once a year, Hel would allow Krampus to walk among the living, and this is when he would enact his terrible deeds against the children. He would appear when it was dark and cold only because it closely resembled his own home in hell. It was called Niflheim, or the World of Darkness, and appears to have been divided into several sections: Náströnd, the shore of corpses. There stood a castle facing north, filled with the venom of serpents, in which murderers, adulterers, and perjurers suffered torment while the dragon Nidhogg sucked the blood from their bodies. Mention made in an early poem of the nine worlds of Niflheim. The poem said that those who fell in battle did not go to Hel but to the god Odin, in Valhalla, the hall of the slain.
Around the 11th century, the idea of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Clause, really began to take hold in winter traditions. Why this time frame? I am glad you asked, as this is a small side story, but I think you might like it, and it ties in with the Christian Church’s need to make Santa Clause a significant player in the holiday. The original saint was a Greek, born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a minor Roman town in contemporary Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a status as a fiery, rugged, and rebellious protector of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303 when city officials burned Bibles and priests made to abandon Christianity or face execution.
Nicholas challenged these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313A.D. with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas’s reputation lived long after his demise (on December 6th in the mid-fourth century, around 343A.D.) because he was associated with many marvels. His admiration for him continues to this day, independent of his Christmas connection. He is the guardian of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.
Around the 16th century, the tradition of Krampus began to re-manifest. The church had made the celebration of Perchta and her Perchten illegal. Still, the Austrian people were unwilling to give up their traditions wholly and developed one main character- the Krampus. Using Krampus as a kind of devil incarnated figure that would propel Saint Nicholas to an almost God-like figure, the church bought into this idea. Krampus would serve Saint Nicholas, traveling in a pack of monsters who would appear during the Yule period. On December 5th, the Krampus monsters were allowed to freely roam the streets of villages, looking for the naughty children to whip or beat. If you were truly horrible, you were placed in their baskets and taken to hell. Then after the fear-filled day of horror, Saint Nicholas would swoop in on December 6th and bring joy, light, laughter, and the spirit of ‘Christianity’ back to the world. Well played church leaders, well played indeed!
Before the mainstream church banned these myths, the Perchten served as a type of protective spirit. He was traditionally seen as a figure that doled out punishment for those who deserved it, not as an evil being trying to gobble up all the children. But, I believe that Krampus was a necessary evil because you need an incentive for the good and consequences for the bad. As religion grew, so did the need to keep individual beliefs and customs, and they were adapted to fit into the new norm.
By the 1800s, polite society could find Krampus on greeting cards, postcards, and even candy wrappers. The pictures were distasteful even for modern-day standards, usually portraying Krampus as a sexual deviant. After doing all this research, I wonder why the church would have spent so much time fostering the Krampus image, only for it not to be a ‘thing’ anymore. Of course, adults LOVE the idea of drinking and merry-making about this time of year- but I don’t remember ever telling my kids to act right, or Krampus was coming for them. Should we bring back the old figure?
Moral of the story: Loki is a real player in mythology, the caretaker of the underworld is a woman, Krampus is so evil that even the Nazi’s banned him for a while, the Christian church used pagan traditions to glorify their saint, and now I can be a paid researcher on the Krampus mythology through a nonprofit in Missouri
I am sure that tomorrow I will come up something new to research, but until then- I am going to go pop some popcorn and watch Krampus with Kekoa.
As always friends, I invite you to do further research as I can not tell the whole story in a short period of time. I have left some links below for you!
And remember- be Great and what you are Good at!
The Myth of Frau Perchta – The Storied ImaginariumHel (Goddess) – Norse Mythology for Smart People (norse-mythology.org)Hel | Norse deity | BritannicaWhat is Krampus? How the Christmas ‘Devil’ Became Cool (nationalgeographic.com)Krampus: The Terrifying Christmas Devil Who Punished Naughty Children | Ancient Origins (ancient-origins.net)The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa | Travel | Smithsonian MagazineWho is Krampus? Explaining Santa Claus’s Scary Christmas Counterpart (nationalgeographic.com)
Books that might interest you:
Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas by John Grossman
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil by Al Ridenour
Ghosts of Christmas Past: A Chilling Collection of Modern and Classic Christmas Ghost Stories by Tim Martin
2 responses to “The ‘Yin’ to Saint Nicholas ‘Yang’…the real story on Krampus”
Very interesting account of “Krumpus” I had heard about it but did not know much about it. I will be sure to find the movie and watch it! 💓
That’s fascinating–and it left me dizzy. Excuse me while I go sit down for a while.