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Krampus: the demonic Santa Claus you haven't heard about

A member of the Haiminger Krampusgruppe dressed as the Krampus creature hits a fire to release sparks on the town square during their annual Krampus night in Tyrol on December 1, 2013, in Haiming, Austria.
A member of the Haiminger Krampusgruppe dressed as the Krampus creature hits a fire to release sparks on the town square during their annual Krampus night in Tyrol on December 1, 2013, in Haiming, Austria.
(Sean Gallup/Getty)

The night of December 5 is the darkest of the whole year. If you can make it through that darkness, St. Nicholas Day awaits you on the other side. But if you cannot, beware, for you might have been taken by Krampus. December 5 is his night — Krampusnacht.

But what does all of this even mean? Allow us to introduce you to a bizarre Christmas tradition from Europe that's been gaining in popularity in the States, to the degree that Krampus is even starring in his own film.

1)   What is a Krampus?

Krampus is basically the anti-St. Nicholas, the opposite of Santa Claus. He's a fugly mythical creature usually depicted with similar features as the devil. He has body hair, horns, hooves, and fangs. He carries with him chains and birch rods, which he uses to beat misbehaving children and whisk them off to hell.

Krampus is considered the son of the Norse god Hel, the ruler of Helheim, or the Underworld. As such, he's a reminder of some of the pagan roots of Christmas celebrations. As early Christianity began spreading throughout Europe, its adherents started to interact with "pagans," and eventually borrowed some of their festivals, repackaging them in ways that resonated with their own religious narratives.

Krampus is known by many names, as the folks at point out. Those names include Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf. (Klaubauf would also be a great name for your prog-rock band.)

2) Why are we talking about Krampus now? Christmas is still a ways off.

Sure. But December 6 is known as Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, in many parts of Europe.

And just like All Saints' Day, St. Nicholas Day has its darker half, which takes place the night before, known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night. It is traditionally viewed as the night when the demon carries out his tricks on all the wicked children of the world.

3) What do people do on Krampusnacht?

Traditionally, children leave their shoes out for Krampus to fill with treats (if they've been nice) or a birch rod (if they've been naughty). Presumably, Krampus no longer drags kids off to hell, but you never know. (In the new movie, the whole "dragging you off to the underworld" thing is still his modus operandi.)

As National Geographic points out, the festivities have become much more modernized in recent years: "A more modern take on the tradition ... involves drunken men dressed as devils, who take over the streets for a Krampuslauf — a Krampus Run of sorts, when people are chased through the streets by the devils."

This is actually pretty close to the roots of Christmas in the United States, as Stephen Nissenbaum details in his book The Battle for Christmas. Because of its association with the pagan winter solstice, and the public drunkenness and licentiousness that went with it, the Puritans originally banned Christmas celebrations in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

4) Did I hear something about spanking being involved?

Yes. Some celebrations include "switching stations" where, in the spirit of the lore surrounding the holiday, participants can go to get spanked by people dressed as Krampuses.

5) Where is Krampusnacht a thing?

Krampus is traditionally associated with European Alpine folklore, but, like most lore, it has circulated steadily around the globe. Modern-day Krampus celebrations are held in Germany, Poland, Italy, and Austria. Several major cities across the US also hold Krampus celebrations each year.

6) Why am I hearing so much about Krampus now?

It's not just the movie. Krampus sure seems like he's making a comeback.

Each year in the US, there are more and more celebrations of Krampusnacht. Pop culture is taking notice as well. In addition to the movie, the animated comedy American Dad produced an episode titled "Minstrel Krampus" in 2013, and The Office's Dwight once dressed up as a variation on the character.

According to National Geographic, celebrating Krampusnacht is a way for people "to celebrate the Yuletide in non-traditional ways." This, it argues, is one way for hip audiences to ironically deck their halls with a snarky, "Bah, humbug!" And also probably have a good time drinking.

It's also possible that the heightened interest in Krampus, at least in the US, is part of the larger trend of an increase in an interest in all things demonic, a trend that has been steadily growing over the past several decades.

7) Can you show me some creepy Krampus pictures?

Yup! Check it.


Karnival Krampus. (Philipp Guelland/Getty)

Krampus pig

Oinky Krampus. (Philipp Guelland/Getty)

Sean Gallup

Abominable Krampus. (Sean Gallup)

Fugly Krampus

Horny Krampus. (Sean Callup)

Adorable Krampus

Adorable Krampus. (Philipp Guelland)

8) How can I celebrate Krampusnacht?

You could go to one of these parties. Or if you want to throw your own, Gizmodo put together a nice list of six things you can do to get the party going.

Make sure to search for DIY devil costumes on Pinterest, and show up to your Christmas party in one.

You could also go see the film Krampus. It's basically fine, but has a lot of issues.

If that doesn't appeal, you could check out this other film. We haven't seen it, but it looks absolutely terrible/the best.

9) December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. What can I do to celebrate that?

St. Nicholas Day is the Christian feast day for St. Nicholas, the early Christian saint who, according to legend, left coins in children's shoes as they slept. Nicholas' habit of leaving kids gifts in secret evolved into the story of Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated differently throughout the world. In Italy, a celebration called Rito delle nubili is held, where young brides are given gifts to help their future marriages. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes hoping St. Nick will exchange them for toys. In Poland, young boys dress as bishops and collect money for the poor.

Here in the US, these celebrations aren't generally observed. However, if you're the church-going type, you could always attend a St. Nicholas mass. Here's one of the prayers you'd say there: 

"O God, who did adorn, by the working of countless miracles, the holy bishop Nicholas; grant we beg You, that by his merits and prayers, we may be delivered from the pains of hell."

…and Krampus!

Update: Question 5 has been updated to reflect that Krampus is popularly celebrated in the places we named.

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