Behind the thin plastic shell of the Modern idea of Christmas as the “most magical time of the year” (ding-dong! ding-dong!) is a well known trope that Christmas is an appropriation of the Pagan midwinter festivals known as the Yuletide. Winters were especially cruel in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages, and the odds were very grim for a child who got lost in the woods after sundown.
“If you are bad, the Boogieman will get you!” Some variation of this saying is a universal aspect of folklore that reflects the grave dangers of a natural childhood. In alpine Europe this monster is called Krampus, from the Old German meaning “claws” a vague enough name for the predators that lurk in the dark of night. The child snatching Krampus is said to have been a forest deity in the folklore of pre-Christian Europe, a theory grounded in the primal horror such monsters represent. The original Pagan folk traditions had been so well intertwined into the Catholic Christmas celebrations that many Protestant clerics condemned all such winter festivities. But, fragments survived in places so isolated they remained beyond the reach of the civic powers that be, and they link us back to an era when people still feared the Wintertime.
The Perchtenlauf was a Pagan tradition in the the alpine regions of Europe that persisted through the Middle Ages into the Early Modern Era. Perchta was said to be a primeval alpine goddess who manifested as both a maiden and hag, embodying the bright and dark sides of the natural world. On the darkest nights of the Winter in remote mountain villages communities would gather to drive malevolent forest spirits away with ritualized combat dances and offerings to the old goddess. Masked and often dressed in furs, the villagers would go from house to house demanding drink and proof that the people therein were good. According to legend, Perchta has the omnipotence to know when people lie and punishes them accordingly. The good received gifts, while children who failed to complete their allotted chores faced a gruesome fate: Perchta would feed them to her retinue of wild devils.
The frightful entourage who follow Perchta take numerous forms in various regions. In Tyrol and Styria women dressed as the old hag herself, known collectively as Perchten, wore grotesque masks and brandished birch rods. Elsewhere in Austria and Bavaria young men called Percht donned goat horned devil masks, and ran through the night beating cowbells and cymbals to frighten off bad luck represented by der Teufel, or Schiachperchten, the archetype for Krampus the Christmas Devil.
Throughout the later Middle Ages the church condemned the Pertchenlauf and civil authorities attempted to ban the rites. Unable to extinguish the custom, by the Seventeenth Century the church had changed tactics introducing Nikolausspiel, Saint Nicholas plays, to the officially sanctioned winter festivities. Staged at church fairs and holiday markets, following the style of earlier morality plays, these performances were designed to educate the illiterate public through entertaining allegorical vignettes. The legend of Saint Nicholas describes him as generous, compassionate, and merciful; he was a perfect foil to the cruel punishments of the Pertchen. Among his supernatural miracles he was attested to have multiplied supplies of grain to prevent famine, and to have resurrected three small children whom a cannibal had butchered and packed in brine. Thus Saint Nicholas was a perfect foil to Pertcha, Krampus, and any other monsters that might make a meal of an innocent child. Bound in chains by the venerable Saint, Krampus and his cohort of winter devils were reduced to a mischievous menace that only posed a threat to children who were not so innocent.
Before we move on to how Krampus survived into modern day Christmas traditions, I want to look back at his mysterious origins. The Roman Church had been established across Germanic Europe for a full thousand years before we see the first references to Bishops condemning the cult of Pertcha in the mid-1400’s. Other traditions of the Pagan Yuletide had been assimilated into the rites of the Western Church since the reign of Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day. Rather the Perchtenlauf appear less than a century after the beginning of the Little Ice Age.
Around 1300 warm summers became uncertain in Northern Europe, resulting in frequent famines and a horrific loss of life. By 1350, the Black Death had spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire killing up to sixty percent of the population in just a few years.
Did these natural disasters that triggered the Great Crisis of the Fourteenth Century also trigger a Pagan revival?
Did Alpine villagers reconstruct lost rituals to half forgotten deities as a direct response to the failure of Christian clerics to deliver them from such nightmarish conditions?
Certainly between the 1650’s when annual temperatures plateaued and the 1850’s when they began rising globally, Krampus and Perchten became fixtures of the alpine Winter bringing their menacing masks and mischievous antics into villages, town, and cities with a rich menagerie of local variations.
In more cosmopolitan areas Angels replaced the youthful aspect of Perchta, while the wild Schiachperchten became more orderly troops of folk dancers. Among the shepherds of the high Alps the crowns of curly rams horns give their masks a Satanic aspect, and in cattle country they build tall heavy masks to support enormous racks of bulls horns, across the region Krampus is joined in his processions by dancing haystacks known as straw bears. In the Rhineland a raggedy old farmhand called Knecht Ruprecht takes on the role of the inhuman Krampus, this character found his way to the Americas in Pennsylvania Dutch communities where he is known as Belsnickel. In urban centers where industrialization would not tolerate the raucous disruptions of the traditional Krampuslauf, parents gave their children greeting cards depicting Krampus as an increasingly comic figure. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, office workers were exchanging Krampuskarten that satirized modern life.
The inherently anarchic nature of Krampus, and all Perchten, is incompatible with the strictly ordered society envisioned by fascists. In 1933, the tradition was formally banned across of Austria and Germany, they would go on to make the tradition illegal in Czechoslovakia, and the rest of Europe. Following the War, the oppressive dictatorships of the Soviet Bloc continued to see the tradition as decadent and unwholesome, as did their counterparts in West Germany and Austria. The Great Crisis of the Twentieth Century appeared to have come to an end in 1989, and once again Europeans turned to lost folk rituals seeking cultural touchstones untainted by Nazism or the Cold War. Thus, Bavarian woodworkers revived the tradition of making hand carved Krampus masks. In no time, the wild Pagan devil hated by fascists and communists alike, was resurrected at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century.
Today in Saltzburg and many major German cities the Krampuslauf is a major tourist event kicking off the annual Christmas Market; and in the U.S., Krampusnacht events are organized by social clubs and civic associations. In the past decade numerous intentionally bad horror movies have been made about Krampus and through American popular culture he has become as iconic of a holiday antihero as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, or Ebeneezer Scrooge.