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As I mentioned in a previous post, the American version of the Santa story has been sanitized a little bit. Most of the legends/backstory we think about when we think about Santa come from Germanic folktales. And like most things with Germanic origins, the earlier incarnations are pretty terrifying. Think the fairytales of The Brothers Grimm, or David Hasselhoff.
The Santa Claus of old folklore is similar to the one we know. He puts presents and treats in the stockings of good kids. But he is also trailed by a trickster demon who punishes the wicked kids. In most tellings, this twisted creature’s name is KRAMPUS.
What does KRAMPUS look like? A lot like that handsome devil to your right. He’s a goat-like monster, with cloven hooves, curly horns, and a terrifyingly long tongue. He carries around a switch, which he uses to beat naughty children. Sometimes, he’s depicted wielding a chain instead (yikes). He also carries a basket, in which he deposits especially bad children, in order to carry them back to Hell (double yikes).
In the 19th century, Krampus was so popular that holiday greeting cards featuring him were sent all over Europe. Most of them had the ironic/ominous message Gruss vom Krampus (“Greetings from Krampus”).
Some of these cards showed Krampus as mischievous, like this one, which has him stealing oranges from little kids. Some showed him as being extremely violent. Some depicted him as a bawdy, satyr-like figure, as the lower-left card in this collage did. Some were just plain bizarre, like this one that shows Krampus all decked in leather, driving a motorcycle, while a passive St. Nicholas rides in the sidecar.
Lest you think this is a relic of simpler times, know that in parts of Europe, people still dress up as Krampus every December 5. They create elaborate demon-masks and roam the streets with chains and other noisy things. Their goals are two-fold: 1) to scare people; 2) to get shit faced. It’s sort of a holiday mashup of Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. (The Morning News has an interesting description of Krampustage from an American’s perspective, which you can read here.)
For some reason, Krampus got airbrushed out of American Christmas traditions. My guess is because he’s terrifying. You won’t find too many references to the child tormentor in our Yuletide fare, although he was referenced on a recent Colbert Report, and seen in the Christmas mini-episode of The Venture Brothers.
So if you dread heading to your folks’ house and drinking too much egg nog, just know that it could be worse. You could have been brought up to know that on Christmas Eve, you might get presents, or you might get dragged to Hades by a fiendish goat-man.