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When is Krampusnacht? Origins of the dark German tradition and how it’s celebrated

Krampus is an Alpine tradition celebrated the night before the Feast of St Nicholas (Getty Images)
Krampus is an Alpine tradition celebrated the night before the Feast of St Nicholas (Getty Images)

Krampusnacht is a centuries-old tradition celebrated in Germany and Alpine regions, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. However, in recent years the creepy legend has infiltrated British and American popular culture.

While the Christmas season is a time of festivity and joy, Krampusnacht is a darker tradition that originated as a counterpart to the feast dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of children who inspired the tradition of Santa Claus. It has inspired more adult-centric traditions over the years, as well as several horror films and TV episodes.

Here's how the legend of Krampus began and how it is celebrated today.

When is Krampusnacht?

Krampusnacht, meaning Krampus Night, is celebrated annually on December 5. This is the night before the Feast of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors, and various groups.

What is Krampus?

Krampus is an anthropomorphic (which means being thought of as having a human form or attributes) figure with claws, horns, and a long tongue. He is depicted as a goat-like monster who punishes children for misbehaving in the run-up to Christmas, usually by swatting them and carrying them away in his sack.

What are the origins of Krampusnacht?

Krampus, and Krampusnacht, originated in Germany centuries ago. His name derives from the word “krampen”, which means claw.

He is considered to be a cruel counterpart to the kind St Nicholas character. While St Nicholas would reward children for being good, Krampus would punish children for being bad.

Legend says he is the son of Hel the Norse god of the underworld, and he may have originated as part of a winter solstice pagan ritual.

The Catholic church attempted to ban Krampus celebrations because he resembled the devil.

People dress up as the devil-like character on Krampusnacht and chase others in the street (Getty Images)
People dress up as the devil-like character on Krampusnacht and chase others in the street (Getty Images)

How is Krampusnacht celebrated?

On Krampusnacht, children leave a boot outside their bedroom door. The next day, they’ll find either a reward for being good, or a rod, which means they’ve been bad.

In parts of Europe, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Slovenia, adults take part in Krampuslauf, which means Krampus Run. It involves people dressing up as devils and chasing others through the streets.

They wear giant horns, carved wooden masks and fur costumes. They also carry cowbells and sticks, which they use to poke the people they are chasing.

Krampus in popular culture

Krampus has entered popular culture outside Germany, particularly with the 2015 horror film, Krampus, starring Adam Scott and Toni Collette. Krampus also inspired a 2016 episode of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s series Inside No. 9, called The Devil of Christmas. The character has also featured in episodes of Scooby-Doo (2012) and American Dad! (2013).

In 2017, National Geographic published an article entitled How Krampus, the Christmas ‘Devil,’ Became Cool. This detailed how art director Monte Beauchamp introduced Krampus to modern audiences with his magazine, Blab, and two books of Krampus postcards in 2004 and 2010. National Geographic also reported that people in Austria have been selling Krampus souvenirs, such as figurines and chocolate.