Every year in early December, children in Austria get ready for St. Nicholas to visit them. If they’ve been good, he’ll reward them with presents and treats. But if they’ve been bad, they’ll get a lot more than a lump of coal—they’ll have to face Krampus.
Who’s Krampus, you ask? He’s the half-man, half-goat who comes around every year to chase naughty children and maybe even drag them to hell. European versions of St. Nicholas have long had scary counterparts like Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht who dole out punishment. Krampus is one such character who comes from folklore in Austria’s Alpine region, where he’s been frightening children and amusing adults for hundreds of years.
Krampus and St. Nick’s other bad boys have their origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, they became part of Christian traditions in which St. Nicholas visited children to reward them on December 5 or 6. Around that time, his menacing partner would also visit kids to punish them. In Alpine Austria and some parts of Germany, this day was known as Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” when adults might dress up as Krampus to frighten children at their homes.
Children might have also seen Krampus running through the street during a Krampuslauf—literally, a “Krampus run.” If Krampusnacht was a way to scare kids into behaving themselves, the Krampuslauf, which isn’t tied to a specific day, was a way for grown men to blow off steam while probably still scaring kids. Austrian men would get drunk and run through the streets dressed as the fearsome creature. Like Krampusnacht, the Krampuslauf tradition continues to the present day.
The introduction of mass visual media couldn’t help but sweep the charismatic Krampus up in its wave. When the postcard industry experienced a boom in Germany and Austria in the 1890s, it opened the way for Krampuskarten.
These holiday cards weren’t mean to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Ones marked “Gruss vom Krampus” (“Greetings from Krampus”) showed Krampus stuffing a distressed child into his satchel or preparing to hit one with his bundle of birch sticks. Many of these postcards depicted Krampus going after children with his sticks, leading them away in chains, or carrying them off in his bag.
There were also cards that were a little more…adult. Krampus cards in the early 20th century show him punishing children, yes, but also proposing to women. In some cards, Krampus is portrayed as a large woman whipping tiny men with her birch sticks and carrying them off in her satchel. In another, a smiling woman dangles a defeated-looking Krampus in the air, holding his bundle of birch sticks behind her back. You can draw your own conclusions about the gender politics in these.
For over a century, most Americans probably never saw a Krampus card or even knew who Krampus was. That changed in 2004, when art director and graphic designer Monte Beauchamp published a book of Krampus cards and helped organize an art show inspired by the cards.
Whether or not Beauchamp is primarily responsible for introducing Krampus cards to the U.S., Krampus has since become a sort of ironic icon in America. Etsy has a whole section of items inspired by classic Krampus cards. And if you don’t have time to send cards, you can buy an ugly Krampus sweater to wear to your local Krampus party or Krampuslauf. Krampus’ popularity in the U.S. arguably peaked with the 2015 feature film Krampus, which shouldn’t be confused with the many other low-budget Krampus movies.
Although Krampus is relatively new to the U.S., this alpine legend is the original bad Santa.
READ MORE: A History of Christmas