The “Christmas Devil” Who Once Haunted the Dreams of Early Americans

A St. Nicholas procession with Krampus, and other characters, c. 1910
A St. Nicholas procession with Krampus, and other characters, c. 1910

Christmas as we know it, with the giving of presents, mistletoe, and jolly o’le Saint Nic have been centuries in the making and have evolved with our ever changing culture.

Long before the birth of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1939, and even before December 25th became the internationally recognized day of Christmas, a cranky devilish creature known as Krampus was also making a list and checking it twice.

While the children of ancient days relished in the thought of Saint Nicholas passing by their way with a visit, bringing toys and candies for good little boys and girls, the dreams of many children from days past were also scarred with fears of a visit from this half-goat, half-demon monster who was believed to have accompanied Santa on his worldwide journey.

While Santa was busy giving good gifts to all the nice children, Krampus would be raining terror upon the children who had misbehaved that year — many legends say he carried a whip in his hands and a basket strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell.

Pretty hardcore eh?

The belief in Krampus actually predates Christianity and has its roots in early Germanic pagan religion; however, as Christmas and Santa rose in prominence throughout Europe, the people of these regions found a way to marry their ancient pre-Christian beliefs to that of Christmas.

Christmas was a holiday forbidden in many early-American colonies for its revelries, however, as the holiday found its way into American culture, early promoters of the holiday made great attempts to block Santa’s sidekick, Krampus, entry into the nation.

However, the onset of the Industrial Revolution brought a tidal wave of new immigrants into America, including those who maintained belief in a goat-devil Christmas creature.

Many of these immigrants found work in the steel mills and coal mines and soon, interest in the Christmas Devil reached the point that newspapers in nation found themselves explaining the story of Krampus for those who found his entire myth fascinatingly frightening.

In 1907, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an extensive article on Krampus, stating, “It is an old legend in Austria that St. Nicholas comes on December 6, accompanied by a devil on one side and an angel on the other, and visits all the children.  The angel picks out the good children, and St. Nicholas leaves toys for them, and the devil, Krampus, as he is called, whips the naughty one with his willow switch and binds them with a chain.  You would think that, being a devil, he would like the bad children best and punish only the good ones, but he must be a sort of reformed devil, or he wouldn’t be going about with good St. Nicholas.”

A 1900s greeting card reading 'Greetings from Krampus!'
A 1900s greeting card reading ‘Greetings from Krampus!’

In the years ahead, the Krampus tradition would become prohibited throughout much of Europe, with governments distributing pamphlets arguing, “Krampus is an Evil Man”.

Apparently, Krampus was even considered too evil by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, as the Nazis banned his celebration in Germany; however, as one writer stated, “Krampus never completely disappeared! He lurked in the shadows and always seemed to bounce back at different times in history!”

Today, there is a resurgence of Krampus tradition and interest… I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day explaining why this is the case!

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