If you were raised in the U.S., you were probably told that you’d get a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking instead of presents under the tree from Santa if you misbehaved all year. But if you were raised in the Alpine region of Europe – modern-day Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, northern Italy and Bavaria, Germany – you were told that your life was at stake if you misbehaved.
Not only would St. Nicholas (i.e., Santa) withhold your presents from you; his demon helper, Krampus, would also beat you, throw you bound into a river and maybe even take you down to hell until you learned to behave.
So, the incentive structure there is a little more … persuasive. One theory about why European settlers in North America dropped Krampus is that the Salem witch trials made people averse to celebrating a Christmas character that resembled the devil.
If you think about it, Krampus lore is more befitting Halloween than Christmas, really. But this half-goat, half-demon vigilante inflicts retributive justice not at the time of harvests and Samhain, but in December.
Historically, he ran rampant on the longest night of the year, no less: the winter solstice. So, his annual mauling spree misses the proverbial deadline (pun accepted) for Halloween. Plus, once he was assigned by the Catholic Church to be St. Nicholas’ partner in a maneuver of politicized evangelism, he was gradually turned into the “Christmas devil” by executive fiat. (That also messed with his work schedule and moved his celebratory night up from the solstice to Dec. 5.)
What does any of that have to do with World War II? Well, first familiarize yourself with Krampus, and then I’ll tell you.
Before the Saint Nick Partnership: A Pagan Fertility Deity
Krampus predates Christianity, originating in Alpine (central and eastern European) traditions as a fertility god and one of the tutelary forest spirits. (There are plenty of other theories, yes, such as his being the son of the Norse underworld god, Hel.
Given that the fertility-god theory best aligns with region-specific history though, I’m sticking with it.) He has the satyr features of gods in ancient European culture (e.g., Pan, Cerunnos): horns, cloven hooves, fur and a tail. In fact, according to some theories, even his name points to those features, deriving from the German word for “claw.” Another theory, however, posits that the name derives from an earlier dialect of German and has a more ominous significance:
According to other versions, the name Krampus comes from the old German dialects common in Austria. There, the word krampus was found in the names of figurines made from dried plums, and meant – withered, dried, lifeless. The action itself takes place at the beginning of winter and precedes the onset of the darkest time of the year. Krampus personified the evil spirits of winter and, with their terrible appearance, reminded people of their inevitable arrival, of the onset of a long, cold and dark season.
Today, the horns, hooves, fur and tail are the hallmark traits of the Christian devil, no? Some speculate that these physical features were literally demonized by early Christian artists and writers in efforts to stamp out paganism. Others claim that the horns and tail derive from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Either way, there’s a visual incrimination that can’t be helped.
A similar fate ravaged the meaning of Krampus’ trademark accessory: birch branches. Originally, these had ties to purification and fertility in Celtic, Germanic and Roman cultures. They were even said to have a phallic significance when brandished as part of the regalia of the Horned God of the Witches (another origin story for Krampus), making Krampus comparable to an incubus. Over time, even before Krampus took up with Saint Nick, they became menacing instruments for establishing social order by swatting the evil out of children.
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em: From Pagan to Semi-Catholic
Fast-forward several hundred years. Christianity has become the dominant religion in Europe, and those in power in the Catholic Church want pre-Christianity cultural artifacts to disappear.
That includes Krampus, who by that point had evolved into a means of instilling morality into children by threatening them with torture and abduction (no Santa required). After all, a horned beast was hardly proper company for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in December. And the Church wasn’t on board with using pagan traditions to rear children, either. However, all attempts to eradicate Krampus – including imposing the death penalty on anyone who dressed up like him during the Inquisition (approximately A.D. 1100 to 1850) – failed. Dogmatism was no match for tradition.
But then, fate intervened. The worship in Greece and Turkey of St. Nicholas made its way to central Europe, making it possible to induct Krampus into the Catholic ecclesiastical mythological corpus.
Like Krampus, St. Nicholas was associated with early winter, having Dec. 6 as his official day. And the observance of this day was that of rewarding good behavior by giving gifts – the perfect way to balance Krampus’ darkness with Christianity’s light. And with that there was even subliminal Catholic indulgence, the notion of being absolved of sin by sacrificing something (here, your flesh) as penance for naughtiness.
So, St. Nicholas was posthumously given an aide-de-camp who would do his dirty work for him eternally, but who was still only second in command. Krampus had the authority to take naughty kids to hell to teach them a lesson, sure, but St. Nicholas had the power to send Krampus himself back to hell.
In fact, that was part of the deal: St. Nicholas promised to drive the devil (i.e., Krampus) away if children behaved well. And to remind people of that, Krampus’ attire took on something new: chains.
These were said to symbolize the Church’s binding of the devil. Ironically, Krampus’ popularity soon surpassed that of his pious partner though, even to the point where the beast himself was the lone gift-giver. Adding to that controversy, the leader of the Protestant Revolution, Martin Luther, discouraged Protestants from celebrating not only Krampus but also St. Nicholas at the expense of focusing on Jesus.
Although the union had some turbulence initially, the tradition took hold. St. Nicholas and Krampus were said to canvass the population for situation reports on children’s conduct on the night of Dec. 5, Krampus Night (“Krampusnacht” in German). St. Nicholas would then reward nice children by leaving presents, and Krampus would beat naughty children with birch branches, eat them or take them to hell. On Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, children would awaken to open their gifts or disinfect their lacerations.
A Cold Civil War: Krampus Gets Political
A seemingly apolitical figure, Krampus was thrust into politics in the 1930s as a straw enemy in a battle between the two leading political coalitions in the Christmas devil’s home country, Austria. On one side (the political left) were the Social Democrats and Communists, who supported Krampus; on the other side (the political right) were the Fatherland Front and Christian Social Party, who wanted to eradicate Krampus.
The left had simply maintained the tradition for the sake of its popularity with the Austrian people. The right, however, had complex ideological reasons for needing to blot Krampus out of the nation’s cultural fabric.
Consider the social climate in a country on the losing side of World War I (1914-1918). By the late 1920s, people had lost faith in the Social Democrats’ government, whose socialist revolution had ended in military defeat. And the post-WWI generation was being educated to resent the political structure imposed on central Europe by the western European victors, favoring authoritarianism over the western parliamentary system.
Authority meant strength, and strength meant stability. So, when candidates on the right put forth a doctrine of clerical fascism (basically, surrendering individual rights to the state and official church), they had enough support to win the 1932 election. Out with the Social Democrats, and in with the Austro-fascists – the Fatherland Front and Christian Social Party – led by Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892-1934).
After their homeland was reduced from an empire to a country following WWI, Austrians voted in an authoritarian regime that abhorred and banned the Krampus tradition.
The war waged against Krampus by the fascists had two fronts: tearing down the existing political structure to rebuild the nation; and protecting Austria’s Catholic identity, which was considered key to the nation’s tenuous sovereignty.
Addressing the first of these, anything the Social Democrats had supported – even an imaginary creature – was destined for destruction owing to guilt by association. The Christian Social Party saw Social Democrats as godless and disagreed with their view that state intervention should promote social welfare (e.g., universal healthcare and education) without involving the clergy. As the fascists saw it, aligning the government with the Catholic Church was indispensable.
And beyond Krampus’ affiliation with the disparaged ruling party was the beast’s seemingly malignant spirit. The fascists argued that Krampus was an unholy symbol of sin and promoted anti-Christian ideals, and they worried about the message he spread throughout a Catholic nation. In one Austrian state, the government went so far as to arrest anyone dressed as Krampus, and people who wanted to dress up as St. Nicholas needed a license to do so.
Whose Side? The Friend of My Enemy Is My Enemy
The fascists were still in power in Austria when Germany annexed the country in March 1938, and the Fatherland Front remained in power alongside Austrian Nazis. The Social Democrats and Communists were the political groups most likely to resist the Nazis, so they were persecuted even more aggressively by the new coalition.
And in keeping with pre-Nazi Austria, Krampus remained a targeted enemy of the state for being in league (nominally) with the Social Democrats. Krampus parties, costumes and anything that perpetuated the Krampus tradition were strictly verboten – forbidden.
Ironically, the Nazi ideology touted pre-Christianity Germanic systems of belief and mythology, and would have embraced Krampus as a solo act if given free rein to do so. Nazis preferred traditional Germanic characters (e.g., Knecht Ruprecht) to Catholic saints, and Austrian-born Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) had likely been raised with Krampus festivities, too.
But because the Nazis were in power with the support of faith-centered, staunchly anti-Krampus political leaders in Austria, it was in their interest to indulge the feverish opposition to the Christmas devil. Consequently, as an enemy of the Nazis’ friends, Krampus had sided against the Axis – with no action required on his part.
Full Circle: Rejected, Adopted and Rejected Again
Krampus might not have been involved in the Austrian politics that influenced the driving force of World War II (the Nazis) if the Catholic Church had never appropriated his persona. He went from being regarded by the Church as the hedonistic dregs of a pre-Christianity past best discarded, to emerging victorious from the Church-sponsored rebranding campaign as a demi-saint.
But once politicians faced geopolitical devastation and turned to the Church for answers, they couldn’t have their demon buddy tagging along with them anymore; that’s just not a good look. Consequently, Krampus’ status returned to what it had been: a symbol of spiritual filth to be wiped away by any means necessary. And this time both the Church and the government made him their enemy. (Sidebar: Krampus was too unholy for the Nazis to tolerate – that’s quite an indictment!)
Was Krampus actually aligned with the Allies against the Axis? Well, I’m not a spiritualistic medium who can confirm or deny this, but I think the Christmas devil assesses naughtiness at a level much too granular to lump geopolitical entities together for bulk judgments.
Besides, Krampus isn’t any nation’s politician; he’s a primordial force of judgment and retribution for children of all nations. And he swiftly returned, albeit not free from opposition, when the fascists were defeated in WWII. And thenceforth the people could (mostly) freely proclaim, “Gruß vom Krampus!” (Click here for the pronunciation.) In English, “Greetings from Krampus!”
Greetings from Krampus this holiday season!
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.
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