KRAMPUS - Santa's Demon Sidekick

Christmas is a time of dusting off old memories and sometimes old blogs --- especially since I'm tied up with a looming deadline right now. This is one of my very favorite posts, a piece of history that Americans are often unfamiliar with....

Our North American Santa Claus is loosely based on the European Saint Nicholas, a kind, gift-giving fellow traditionally portrayed in long bishop’s robes instead of a red suit. Saint Nick grew out of stories about an actual person, Nikolaos of Myra, a Greek bishop with a reputation for secret gift-giving such as leaving coins in shoes and working miracles.

So understanding Saint Nicholas is easy. It’s the company he keeps that raises questions and eyebrows. In Austria, Hungary, Bavaria and other Alpine countries, St. Nick’s assistant isn't a cute little elf, it's an enslaved demon. Yup, that’s right. D-E-M-O-N. This cloven-hoofed creature goes by many names, but most commonly is called Krampus, which is Old High German for claw.

Perhaps the word for “long” would have suited him better. Not only does Krampus have lengthy talons, but sports exceptional horns on his head as well. His seven-foot tall body is usually covered with long shaggy hair (often black), he has a long tail and he has a tongue longer and more prehensile than that belonging to Gene Simmons' demon character of KISS fame.

If all that weren’t intimidating enough, Krampus is not only a demon, but an incubus. That’s a demon who sexually preys on sleeping humans! (Santa hangs out with a predator?!)

St. Nick and his goons

So while St. Nicholas got all the positive press by delivering gifts and treats to “good” boys and girls, Krampus was right by his side to dish out not just warnings but punishment to the “bad” children, and sometimes to adults too. In some places, the jolly old saint was accompanied by not one but several demons – his own personal gang of enforcers!

If you weren't saying your prayers, doing your chores and being properly respectful to elders, the penalty wasn't a mere lump of coal in your stocking. Krampus was armed with chains, a bag or basket and bundles of switches. If you were lucky, Krampus only took all your presents for himself. More often, you’d be spanked or even beaten. In some towns, kids had to run a long gauntlet of people dressed as Krampus and armed with switches!

Krampus taking "bad" children to Hell
Really naughty kids were allegedly shackled with chains or stuffed in a bag or basket, and carried off to Hell to burn forever – at least, that’s what children were told. In Switzerland, where Krampus is called Schmutzli, children were routinely threatened with being carried off to the dark forest by the demon or tied in his sack to be thrown in the river and drowned!

We've all seen little kids who are intimidated or downright terrified of department store Santas (some of us WERE those little kids!). How on earth did European children cope with seven-foot demons threatening them? Were they tougher than today's kids or were they scarred for life? Psychological studies hadn't been invented when St. Nick’s sinister sidekick first popped up in Germanic folklore around 1600. And the whole Christmas demon concept probably goes all the way back to pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations when pagan deities were said to roam the night.

Greetings from Krampus!
Krampus' popularity grew until eventually he got his own day. Krampusnacht was usually December 5th which is the eve of St. Nicholas Day in many regions. In some places, there were entire Krampus festivals held, where young men dressed up like demons and terrorized the local children (and unwary young women) for days. By the way, the reward for this important public service was beer and other spirits. Many of these traditional festivals continue to this day.

In the 1800s, while the Victorians were developing the notion of sending pretty Christmas cards, a trend emerged in some European countries to send scary, lewd and suggestive postcards of the yuletide demon! Instead of Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, these cards usually said “Greetings from Krampus!” (About as cheery to receive as “Compliments from Satan”!)

So the next time you start wishing for a real old-fashioned holiday, try singing “Krampus the Christmas Demon” to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and remember that the season of goodwill once had a very dark and disturbing side!

Dani Harper

Your turn!  Have you ever heard tales of the Krampus? Got any other scary Christmas traditions to share?  By the way, have a look at this book on Amazon -
Krampus: The Devil of Christmas


  1. ^^ in my country Saint Nicolas is different than Santa claus and he is accompagned by a black man " Père fouettard" but don't see any race when i say black^^ becaus ein my country he is a chimney sweep in fact and he is in charge of the bad children in the past good ones got a "clementine" or an orange while bad children got a piece of coal so not a demon at all^^

    and since St Nicolas is different than " Pere Noel ( santa claus) children get gifts twice and usually the tradition wants that we put the tree after st Nicolas ( after 6th december)

  2. Hi Miki! Thanks for sharing that tradition -- I've heard some variations on it, but it's good to get the information from someone who actually lives in that country!

  3. Schmutzi makes me think of schmutz which is Yiddish for dirt - "You've got a little schmutz on your face." I wonder if the demon's name is related.

    1. That's a really good point --- I'll bet it is!


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