Chains, devil horns, and pitchforks are not things most people associate with the holidays.
Yet some say that the centuries-old European folktale is turning commercial, as Krampus-themed chocolates, decorations, and greeting cards are readily available. Yet at the same time, could he actually be a subversive force for anti-consumerism?
Think of him as the anti-Santa. Krampus – as he is called in his native Austria, though he goes by other names throughout Europe – is St. Nicholas’s helper and his task is to scare small children into being good. On Dec. 6 – the saint's feast day, or St. Nicholas Day – the pair will dole out chocolates and fruit to good children across Europe, while misbehaving children can expect a punishment instead, usually a bundle of twigs.
This folklore tradition, which originates from a well-known tale about St. Nicholas’ battle with the devil, has been exported to the United States where Krampus is gathering a cult-like following and has even made an appearance on the Colbert Report.
But in Europe, Krampus is falling the way of most holiday traditions, says Eva Kreissl, curator at the Folk Life Museum in Austria – as a commodity to be capitalized on.
Dr. Kreissl says Krampus chocolates and figurines are very common now and show that this character too is becoming increasingly marketable. Many people also buy devil-type horns that accompany the Santa hats commonly worn around St. Nicholas Day.
Krampus runs, or parades, with participants wearing elaborate costumes trying to terrify onlookers, are very popular in Austria and are an attraction for tourists. Just one Krampus run in Graz on Dec. 1 was attended by 35,000 people, according to the city's tourism office.
But people have long found ways to make money from the tradition. Kreissl recalls finding evidence that young people in the mid-19th century used to dress as the devil and stand, along with others dressed as St. Nicholas, in the marketplace, waiting to be hired to come to homes and visit children.
The marketing for St. Nicholas Day is "not as potent as Christmas but it’s also a commercial thing,” says Kreissl.
Nowadays, St. Nick increasingly resembles the globalized image of Santa Claus, coming down a chimney dressed in a fuzzy red coat and long white beard, whereas traditionally he appeared more like a bishop.
Some teachers in Austria have said Krampus should not visit schools because he is too scary. And in Hungary, where Krampus is a somewhat lighter version of his Austrian counterpart, teaching assistant Klári Tölgyesi says St. Mikulás – as he is called in Hungarian – and his devilish sidekick visit her school every year but the students only receive presents from the duo.
“We have just really, really good children in our school,” she says with a laugh.
Ms. Tölgyesi remembers when her own children would giggle after receiving twigs, or virgacs, from Krampus.
“I bought a branch, a virgacs, for them but I decorated it with sugar and nuts and apples and I told them ‘Yes, you were a little bit naughty and a little bit good, so Mikulás couldn’t decide what to give for you.’”
Kreissl says Krampus can be safe from consumer culture “only in little communities, like church communities or little villages or flats, who celebrate it in their way.”
Sympathy for the devil?
But while Krampus may be losing his edge in his native Alpine home, some in the US see him as an alternative to the overly commercial, cheer-filled version of Christmas, balancing out the constant reminder that this is the "season of giving."
Eric Rezsnyak, from Rochester, New York, is planning his own Krampus-themed party and says, “First and foremost, it encourages people to stop and think about what the holidays are and what they’re supposed to be about.”
These parties are becoming increasingly popular and serve to “remind us that the holidays aren’t just about ‘show up and you get a present,’” Mr. Rezsnyak says.
Local artists will have their crafts on display and a bake sale will raise money for a local non-profit. Toy donations will also be collected for charity, although two organizations have said they are uncomfortable with the event’s theme and will only accept donations anonymously, according to Rezsnyak. With sinister-looking costumes and a craft session involving making your own beating rod, the tongue-in-cheek party is strictly "no minors."
“As soon as you explain Krampus to people the first question is ‘did you make this up?’ At which point I explain, no, this is an actual thing," Rezsnyak says.
“The second reaction typically is that it’s amazing and ‘I want to be part of this.’”