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Light the Yule Log & Crack the Chains: Krampusnacht Traditions

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, one cannot help to think of holiday traditions. One such holiday tradition is based on the legend of Krampus, which is prevalent in the Alpine regions of Austria, Italy and Southern Bavaria.

Krampus is an imposing figure. Covered in fur, tromping on cloven feet, having a head crowned in two large horns, and possessing a long winding tail, Krampus does not need the switches and bag he traditionally carries to invoke fear in those that see him. One common theory regarding Krampus is that he is a relic of the Alpine regions pagan past, and was demonized by Christian missionaries who used Krampus as a counter to Santa Claus. Whereas Santa Claus rewards good children with candy and presents, Krampus particularly delights in punishing the wicked. The switches (often made of birch and called "ruten") and bag that Krampus uses and totes around with him are used to punish said children on the "naughty" list. Krampus will switch (or alternatively, whip naughty children with rusty chains) prior to shoving them in his bag and dragging them to the bowels of hell. In a tradition that can be traced back to the 17th century, Krampus roams the streets of villages on December 5th, the night before Saint Nicholas' Day.


Known as Krampusnacht, this is the night that disobedient children fear most of all. Traditionally, adults in the village would dress up as living effigies of Krampus (fur, horns and all), while smashing chains in the village streets and running around them manically. This running of individuals celebrating Krampusnacht is called a Krampuslauf, and is more often than not fueled by bacchanal consumption of schnapps, which is a favorite drink of Krampus'.

If Krampus is in a more generous mood, he will simply leave a stick in lieu of candy in a child's shoe. More examples of benign traditions include the exchange of Krampuskarten, or cards emblazoned with images of Krampus. Whether those are equally as horrifying to children is up to debate, as images on Krampuskarten include ones like the image pictured below.

Some Austrian adults feared that Krampus may be scarring children for life. In 1950's Vienna, anti-Krampus pamphlets were earnestly distributed. One such pamphlet succinctly claimed: "Krampus is an Evil Man." Supporters of Krampus Yuletide traditions argue that like most modern commercialized holidays, celebrations have been toned down and no permanent damage had been done to the psyches of the Alpine children.

Krampus is also undergoing a resurgence in contemporary culture outside of the Alps. Modern tattoo artists have had a litany of clients requesting Krampus style tattoos, such as this example by Mason Williams, a tattoo artist in Cincinnati, Ohio. One simply has to search for "Krampus Tattoo" in any internet search engine to see a legion of images of Krampus permanently etched onto skin.


Authors have also used Krampus as a muse and inspiration for their work. Of these, the most prevalent is Brom. Brom draws inspiration from the legend of Krampus in his novel, Krampus the Yule Lord. Brom keeps the spirit of Krampus alive by instilling in Krampus a drive for vengeance. The novel opens with a dark monologue from Krampus:

"Santa Claus, my dear old friend, you are a thief, a traitor, a slanderer, a murderer, a liar, but worst of all you are a mockery of everything for which I stood. You have sung your last ho, ho, ho, for I am coming for your head. . . . I am coming to take back what is mine, to take back Yuletide . . ."


Brom also transports Krampus from his traditional Alpine home to Boone County, West Virginia. As the Library Journal stated in their review of Brom's novel, Krampus the Yule Lord is perfect for anyone who loathes a sentimental, cozy holiday story.

December 5th is rapidly approaching. When the day arrives, it would behoove any reader who has been naughty to look over his or her shoulder, and have a keen ear that night for the clinking of chains. For those who have been nice, lay back, light the Yule log, and pour a glass of schnapps. Then raise your glass to Krampus, the Yule Lord, for his is a holiday tradition that generations have failed to forget.

Image via Brom Art
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