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The 'Yin' to Saint Nicholas 'Yang'...the real story on Krampus

I love Marvel movies. I don't think that the boys and I have missed one. They are tied to some of my favorite memories. The four of us planning a trip to the movie theaters, the popcorn and candy, the arguments over seating arrangements, the LONG discussions afterwards on the whole plot of the Marvel movie and how it ties in to the others. Will there be a part 2? I am a big fan of Doctor Strange- my kids not so much. But, by far- I loved the Thor movies. And Loki was my favorite character. I don't know why. He was always trying to get the upper hand, he was not a good person, but man he was funny! What I didn't know was that the whole movie is based on Norse mythology.

It was another sleepless night, and the only person awake was my friend Google...so we were hanging out over a cup of coffee, ignoring puppy Polar, and I was looking up interesting facts about Christmas, in particular strange beliefs and customs. I stumbled on to the tradition of Krampusnacht, Krampus Night, celebrated on 5 December in Central Europe as far back as pre-Christian Alpine tradition. In my research, I kept coming across Loki and his family. Eye opener- he is a real god? Like a real, real, god? Like traditional stories mention Loki? He has a family? Will the world never cease to amazing me! But, then a even bigger surprise! Krampus makes a appearance.

I like Krampus- good movie that we watched some years ago on Christmas Eve. He is like the Yin to Santa's Yang. (Side note- I thought this was a original idea until I came across it in two other scholarly reports- I guess great minds think alike). A shadow of Saint Nicholas. A demon of Christmas. A wintery devil.

He has become quite popular in recent years, interestingly because his whole ideal is based on eating naughty children. Lets put it this way, Krampus's story is so sensational that the Nazi's even banned the celebration of him. Between 1934 and 1938, when Austria was under Fascist rule, Krampus was perceived as a representation of sin, anti-Christian ideals, and Social Democrats. The newspaper of the Austrian Catholic Union called for a Krampus boycott, and the government of Lienz, forbade Krampus dances and further mandated that all aspiring St. Nicholas’s must be registered by the city. They also promised to arrest Krampus whenever they saw him. Though it didn’t rise to the level of a ban, in 1953 the head of Vienna’s kindergarten system printed a pamphlet calling Krampus “an evil man” and cautioning parents that celebrating him could scar their children for life.

But, never fear! You cant keep the monster down for long! Krampus now has his own American website called the Krampus Army. New York City turns its Blood Manor Scare Factory haunted house into a Krampus themed terror for one night. Bellingham, WA puts on a Krampus Kon and Seasonal Booze pub crawl. Washington, D.C. does a charity events for the foster youth that is called Krampusnacht. Bloomington, Indiana holds the largest Krampus event in North American called the Krampus Rampage. My favorite city of New Orleans holds the Krewe of Krampus with a parade of the Sisters of Shh, icy queens, who warns of Krampus's arrival. In St. Louis, Missouri they have a nonprofit educational organization that is called the Krampus Research Association that furthers Krampus-related studies. Krampus has become a main stream celebration of Christmas.

But who is Krampus and how does he tie into Christianity, Christmas, the Norse Goddess of Hell and Loki the trickster God?

Krampus has two completely different history's, 5 if you look into all the different mythology. But for the sake of arguments, I will boil it down to 2- the German/Norse traditional myth and the Christian tradition. There is not much known about the pagan traditions as as we all know, they were typically wiped out with the development of modern Christianity. However, we can look towards Norse, German, and Greek mythology and a few surviving records to put together a general idea.

Old world German- Krampen meant 'claw', which might be what his name is derived from. Traditional he is perceived as a a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who literally beats people into being nice and not naughty. The closest connection are pagan festivals celebrated during the winter months where men would dress up in devilish masks and animal furs and act like a nuisance to the villagers. There is not much to link the Christian holiday of Christmas with Krampus other than the time period of celebration, typically always during the longest days of winter, but there is enough there to believe that Krampus and winter solstice was linked together originally. There is some belief that Krampus tradition was not originally formed from mythology or paganism itself, but rather a push back against the Christian church and their lack of understanding of the 'old-ways'.

In Austrian culture, the closest belief to the origins of Krampus comes from Perchta, the winter Goddess. She became more well known with her other name- Frau Berchta, which was popularized by the Brothers Grimm. She is also associated with Berchta the Germanic goddess of abundance who was demonized by the Catholic church and referred to as a witch. You see, Frau Perchta — much like Santa Claus — will reward good children and punish the bad. The Storied Imaginarium tell us that: "She also punishes women for unkempt households and unspun flax. For those she deems good, a silver coin is left for them. If she deems you unworthy, if you forget to leave out a bowl of porridge for her, if your flax is half spun and unfinished, she slits open your abdomen, removes your organs, and replaces them with straw. She was also associated with the Wild Hunt, flying through the night sky while accompanied by her demonic Perchten — Krampus-looking creatures — and elves and unbaptized babies. During the last three Thursdays before Christmas, you will hear the sounds of thunder and wind roaring, however it is really Frau Perchta leading her Wild Hunt."

In Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, Goddess to the underworld. The story tells us that Loki had 3 children from a relationship between himself and a giantess by the name of Angrboda. The children were a snake named Jormungand, a wolf named Fenrir, and a girl named Hel. Loki completed an abysmal ritual on his daughter. He secured her between two trees and immersed half of her body in icy water. Slowly, her skin withered and turned black. Removing his daughter from the water, Loki made her consume a concoction that warmed only half of her body. From this experience, Hel developed the gift of seeing ‘the shadows of the world beyond ours’. Her body bearing the scars of her terrible ordeal, half alive, half dead, condemned to black and white, Hel became the mistress of the kingdom of the dead.

Another source says that "youngest daughter of Loki, Hel is described as “a horrible hag, half alive and half dead, with a gloomy and grim expression. Her face and body are those of a living woman, but her thighs and legs are those of a corpse, mottled and moldering.” It is said that once a year, Hel would allow Krampus to walk among the living and this is when he would enact his terrible deeds against the children. He would appear when it was dark and cold only because it closely resembled his own home in hell. It was called Niflheim, or the World of Darkness, and appears to have been divided into several sections, one of which was Náströnd, the shore of corpses. There stood a castle facing north; it was filled with the venom of serpents, in which murderers, adulterers, and perjurers suffered torment, while the dragon Nidhogg sucked the blood from their bodies. Mention is made in an early poem of the nine worlds of Niflheim. It was said that those who fell in battle did not go to Hel but to the god Odin, in Valhalla, the hall of the slain.

Around the 11th century, the idea of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Clause, really began to take hold in winter traditions. Why this time frame? I am glad you asked, as this is a small side story but I think you might like it and it ties in the Christian Church's need to make Santa Clause a major player in the holiday. The original saint was a Greek, born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a minor Roman town in contemporary Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a status as a fiery, tough, and rebellious protector of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to abandon Christianity or face execution.

Nicholas challenged these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas's reputation lived long after his demise (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many marvels, and admiration for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the guardian of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.

Around the 16th century, the tradition of Krampus began to re-manifest. The church had made the celebration of Perchta and her Perchten illegal, but the Austrian people were unwilling to give up their traditions wholly and developed 1 main character- the Krampus. The church bought into this idea, using Krampus as a kind of devil incarnated figure that would propel Saint Nicholas to a almost God like figure. Krampus would serve Saint Nicholas, traveling in a pack of monsters who would appear during the Yule period and on December 5th, the Krampus monsters were allowed to roam the streets of villages freely, looking for the naughty children to whip or beat. If you were truly horrible, you would be placed in their baskets to be taken to hell. Then after the fear filled day of horror, Saint Nicholas would swoop in on December 6th and bring joy, light, laughter, and the spirit of 'Christianity' back to the world. Well played church leaders, well played indeed!

Before the main stream church banned these myths, the Perchten served as a type of protective spirit. He was traditionally seen as a figure that doled out punishment for those who deserved it, not as a evil being trying to gobble up all the children. But, I believe that Krampus was a necessary evil, because you need incentive for the good and consequences for the bad. As religion grew, so did the need to keep individual beliefs and customs and they were adapted to fit into the new norm.

By the 1800's, Krampus could be found on greeting cards, post cards, and even the wrappers of candy. The pictures were distasteful even for modern day standards, usually always portraying Krampus as a type of sexual deviant. I wonder, after doing all this research, why the church would have spent so much time fostering the Krampus image, only for it not to be a 'thing' anymore. Of course, adults LOVE the idea of drinking and merry making about this time of year- but I don't remember ever telling my kids to act right or Krampus was coming for them. Should we bring back the old figure?

Moral of the story- Loki is a real player in mythology, the caretaker of the underworld is really a women, Krampus is so evil that even the Nazi's banned him for a while, the Christian church used pagan traditions to glorify their own saint, and now I can be a paid researcher on the Krampus mythology through a non-profit in Missouri.

I am sure that tomorrow I will come up something new to research, but until then- I am going to go pop some popcorn and watch Krampus with Kekoa.

The Myth of Frau Perchta – The Storied Imaginarium

Hel (Goddess) - Norse Mythology for Smart People (norse-mythology.org)

Hel | Norse deity | Britannica

What is Krampus? How the Christmas 'Devil' Became Cool (nationalgeographic.com)

Krampus: The Terrifying Christmas Devil Who Punished Naughty Children | Ancient Origins (ancient-origins.net)

The Origin of Krampus, Europe's Evil Twist on Santa | Travel | Smithsonian Magazine

Who is Krampus? Explaining Santa Claus's Scary Christmas Counterpart (nationalgeographic.com)

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