Krampus Night: From Medieval Fears to Modern Celebrations

Krampus Night is a traditional folkloric event usually celebrated in Central European countries. It derives its name from the demonic creature Krampus, which holds a significant place in Central European and Eastern Alpine folklore.

Who is Krampus?

According to mythological narratives and folk tales, Krampus is the name of a demonic creature characterized by horns, hair, and sometimes a witch-like appearance. He is considered the opposite of Santa Claus and is believed to be responsible for punishing naughty children.

The Krampus figure is especially popular in Central European countries such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and Slovenia, but is also known in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czechia, Italy and Romania.

Krampus typically appears on the evening of December 5, just before Saint Nicholas Day, and joins the good-hearted Santa Claus who bestows gifts upon children. However, Krampus’ role is to scare misbehaving children, so instead of giving gifts, he gives coal to the naughty ones or punishes them with a stick. He does not approach well-behaved children.

Krampus Night
Krampus Night in Austria (2006)
Photo: Anita Martinz (Wikimedia) ©CC BY 2.0 DEED

Mythological Origins

According to many anthropologists and folklorists, the origin of Krampus dates back to the pre-Christian periods of Medieval Europe.1 2

Christianity spread to Central Europe starting from the eighth century, and various pagan beliefs, traditions, and customs persisted by integrating with Christianity. It is believed that the Krampus figure in today’s popular culture is a product of this complex cultural context.

Krampus is believed to be mythologically related to pagan rituals and witch hunts. In medieval Europe, especially in the Alps region, people engaged in various rituals to celebrate the winter season and protect themselves from the evil creatures associated with winter. In these rituals, the fear of supernatural beings haunting people played a significant role. It would not be incorrect to assert that Krampus’s horned, hairy, and frightening appearance represents the supernatural fears prevalent during this period.

Eight Mythological Creatures of Winter and Snow

In addition, the witch-like depiction of Krampus in certain cultures could be associated with the witch hunts during the Middle Ages. In that era, people accused of being witches were approached with fear and dread. Consequently, the malevolent and demonic portrayal of Krampus may also reflect the elements of fear prevalent during the witch hunts.

Krampus Night in Germany (2022)

Krampus in Historical Context

The historical roots and evolution of Krampus must be considered within a broad cultural context. The Middle Ages were a period of significant social and cultural changes in Europe. Events during this era shaped the emergence of the Krampus figure and contributed to the evolution of this frightening creature.

In the Middle Ages, as winter approached, people sought protection against supernatural forces and the challenges that winter brought. Throughout Europe, there was a widespread fear of supernatural beings, and people attempted to appease or ward off these entities during winter festivals.

Winter festivals and rituals allowed people to come together during challenging times, strengthen their bonds, and confront their fears. In this context, the presence of Krampus may have acquired significance as a symbol representing supernatural fears.

The evolution of the Krampus figure is closely intertwined with the spread of Christianity in Europe and the amalgamation of pagan traditions with the new faith. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church endeavored to attract local populations to the emerging religion by incorporating existing pagan rites into Christian beliefs. During this era, Krampus continued to exist in a manner that coexisted with Christianity, and his role was defined as the punishment of misbehaving children before Christmas.

The cultural transformations during the Middle Ages played a crucial role in popularizing Krampus and shaping his mythological identity. While winter festival rituals have varied across cultures over time, Krampus’ main role has consistently involved punishing those who misbehaved and bringing the community together.

In the late 19th century, traditions linked to Krampus had faded away in many regions. Nevertheless, in the mid-20th century, particularly in Germany and Austria, there was a resurgence of these traditions. Today, these celebrations are widely popular, especially in these countries.

Krampus Night
Krampus Masks

Krampus Night

In accordance with historical traditions, Krampus Night is typically celebrated on December 5th. The festivities commence in the evening and extend into the late hours, symbolizing the time when Krampus would appear to frighten children. City centers and towns come alive with specially prepared events and shows for this night.

During Krampus Night celebrations, participants often don costumes and masks. These outfits incorporate horns, hair, and a terrifying appearance to accurately portray the classic depiction of Krampus. The masks are usually crafted by hand, showcasing the artisan’s skill.

The focal points of Krampus Night events are typically street marches and performances. Individuals adorned in Krampus costumes roam through the crowds, playing pranks on children and providing moments of both fear and excitement for the audience.

In addition, events featuring fire shows, dance performances, and musical acts are frequently organized. Beyond providing entertainment and fostering social interaction among participants, these events often have the additional goal of raising awareness about social issues. Street demonstrations, in particular, offer a distinctive platform to communicate messages about art, culture, or social justice, providing an opportunity to engage with a diverse audience.

Krampus Night celebrations can vary regionally. In some areas, the festivities may incorporate more traditional and local elements, while larger cities may host more spectacular events.

Special meals and beverages are a common highlight of these events. Gingerbread cookies, cinnamon cakes, local cheeses, sausages, mulled wines, and various liqueurs allow participants to savor traditional flavors.

Krampus Night in Italy (2022)

Krampus in Popular Culture

Krampus has assumed a significant role in popular culture in recent years, gaining widespread presence across various media platforms. This menacing figure is frequently featured in cinema, television, literature, music, and other art forms. Particularly in the realm of metal music…

Metal music, a genre renowned for its rebellious spirit, thematic depth, dark atmospheres, and mythological elements, often incorporates the Krampus theme. This theme is a compelling and frequently utilized element in metal, especially in subgenres such as death metal, black metal and folk metal. It provides musicians and bands with rich material to express their musical creativity. According to data from Encyclopaedia Metallum, there are three distinct groups named Krampus, Krampüs, and Krampus Parade.3

The 2015 horror-comedy film “Krampus”, featuring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner, played a pivotal role in introducing Krampus to a broad audience. In this movie, Krampus is depicted as the evil counterpart to Santa Claus, creating a fantastic comedy that incorporates classic horror elements. Beyond adhering to traditional Krampus mythology, the film incorporates modern pop culture interpretations, making this legendary creature accessible to contemporary audiences.

Furthermore, Krampus’s presence in various television series and comic books has solidified the figure in popular culture. Numerous writers and artists have reshaped Krampus’s mythology with their creative interpretations, contributing to Krampus evolving beyond a traditional character into a dynamic figure.

  1. “Südtirol in Geschichte und Gegenwart”, Michael FORCHER & Hans Karl PETERLINI, Haymon Verlag, 2010, ISBN: 9783852186368[]
  2. The man behind the Krampus mask”, Anna MUCKERMAN, BBC, 2018, December 8[]
  3. Encyclopaedia Metallum – The Metal Archives, November 13, 2023[]