Krampus: Naughty or Nice? Exploring the Origins of This Christmas Legend

By Sophia Maddox | December 7, 2023

Krampus is gonna getcha

Now you've done it. You dropped the moral ball, and per tradition, Krampus will come for you on December 5. (Don't even pretend you don't know what you did.) While Santa hands out gifts to everyone on his "nice" list, his demonic buddy, Krampus, brutally punishes children who dare to commit even the most minor of sins. Who is this Germanic yuletide bad boy with a seemingly endless supply of tree branches? Why have Americans begun celebrating the switch-bearing yang to Santa's yin?

test article image
Source: Wikimedia

According to legend, Krampus and Saint Nicholas travel together throughout Europe the night before Saint Nicholas Day, doling out pain and pleasure in tandem. While Saint Nicholas places candy in the shoes of good little children, Krampus beats bad children with birch branches. If the kids are really horrible, he stuffs them in his sack and drags them screaming and crying back to his lair, where he either tortures them, eats them, or banishes them to hell, depending on who's telling the story. Either way, it seems a bit extreme for some temper tantrums.

The yuletide demon predates Christmas

test article image
Source: Getty Images

Even though he's been absorbed into the Christmas tradition over the last few centuries, Krampus actually originated in the days of pre-Germanic paganism in northern Europe. His name comes from the German krampen, which means "claw," and before he was Saint Nicholas's assistant manager, he was the son of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld. His horrifying visage, a demonic goat man with one human foot and one goat foot, ties into a 1,000-year-old pagan ritual that involved dressing up in spooky costumes and running through the streets to dispel the spirits of winter.