Krampus, the Devil’s Sidekick, Haunts Europe’s Christmas Markets

One of the most colorful German Christmas traditions is the appearance of Krampus at the region’s fabled holiday markets. This demonic figure is the mischievous counterpart to St. Nick, but where the kindly St. Nick rewards children with gifts, Krampus presents those who misbehave with a lump of coal. He might also deliver a fearsome growl as he playfully harasses market visitors — even those who have outgrown his reach. But who is this mythical demon, and how did its legend arise?

Krampus evolved from pre-Christian, pagan tradition in Germany. Believed by academics to have originated from certain pagan initiation rites, Krampus stuck as a folk icon after Christianity became the common religion. Krampus came to represent an agent of the Devil — although there is no Christian explanation for why it accompanies Santa Claus on his journey, other than to serve as a foil. During the holiday season St. Nick, dressed in full regalia, makes an entrance at most Holiday markets, followed by a capering Krampus, with brown or black hair all over, the cloven hooves and horns of a goat, and a long, pointed tongue. Krampus my rattle chains and bells to boisterous effect, reminding naughty children (and adults) that he might capture them and punish them for their misdeeds.

Over time, the Krampus legend spread beyond German Christmas traditions to those of Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other regions of central Europe — though for much of the 20th century, the Austrian government discouraged the depiction of Krampus because of its evil character. These days, adults also enjoy celebrating the Krampus tradition. The night of December 5 — the eve of St. Nicholas Day — is known as Krampuslauf or the “night of Krampus”; this is when the Krampus traditionally “punishes” children who have misbehaved each year. On this evening many adults dress as the Krampus and celebrate with parties and drinking. In some cases, men dressed as the Krampus run through the streets, engaging passersby in friendly chases. Often, Krampus-shaped breads make their way into the markets.

When you venture out on Vantage Travel’s Danube Holiday River Cruise Featuring Prague you may come face to face with this traditional imp, and will certainly enjoy the spirit of the season as you explore the Christmas markets all along the river from Budapest to Regensburg, Germany.