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It’s that time of the year again. I noticed that in recent years Americans have shown interest in the Krampus. And while I am happy to see that something from my own cultural background seems to be popular overseas, I can’t help but to notice some misconceptions…. But as you know I love nothing more than to inform where information is wanted/needed. So here we go with some misconceptions about the Krampus.
I start of with a very big one.
Krampus has NOTHING to do with Christmas.
Nothing. Yes, he does accompany St. Nikolaus. But that is the thing. In Austria (and the rest of central Europe) St. Nikolaus has nothing to do with Christmas either. He just happened to be celebrated in December. Over here he has no connection to Santa Claus. That is because we don’t have Santa Claus over here but that is a different story.
Traditionally on the eve of December 6th, children will be visited by a man dressed as St. Nikolaus (usually hired from the local church or hired by the parents). That is dressed in the garb of a Late Antique bishop with a bishop's crozier (staff), a colobium (cloak) and a bishops mitra (hat). He will tell the children his story – how he as bishop of the city of Myra helped the people in the 4th century AD – and present them with a burlap bag (secretly given to him by the parents on arrival) filled with nuts, apples, clementine’s and various chocolate versions of himself (you can see some examples in the image below). Then the children will usually perform poetry or sing songs and they will talk about the good and bad things they did. That’s it. There is no connection to Christmas.
That said, Krampus can be associated with St. Nikolaus but does not have to. Sometimes, Krampus will accompany St. Nikolaus to “punish” bad kids.
Krampus gets his own holiday the previous day. Usually young men will dress up in traditional Krampus gear which consist of a cape made from goat fur, huge cowbells, hooved wooden shoes and huge (and most often very valuable) wooden masks. They then “run” down the main streets of villages and cities in events known as “Krampuslauf” which can get pretty violent but nevertheless are a huge draw (in Klagenfurt for example, usually more than 50.000 people attend). No Christmas here either.
Now a second misconception I often hear is calling Krampus “German” or “Germanic” or “Slavic”. Each of these denominations is wrong. It would be correct to call the Krampus an “Alpine” phenomenon since it seems to be strongly influenced by the culture of the mountains and it is common in areas of several central European countries. He is not linked to any modern culture or ethnicity but rather the Alps as a geographic region.
It is hard to tell where the Krampus comes from. Most likely he dates to a time even before the romans and represents an ancient custom to scare away the winter (however sources older than the 16th century are scarce). In several regions in the alps today similar customs still survive that involve dressing up and dancing to influence the weather.