This painting by Franz Xaver von Paumgartten, commissioned by an Austrian family in 1820, shows St. Nicholas with the family while Krampus, true to form, stands silently behind him.

The evil helpers of St. Nicholas–Klaubauf, Cert, Houseker, Hans Trapp, Beelzebub, Pere Fouettard, and Schmutzl, among many others–often get a bad rap.  Granted, they are typically monstrous beings of the underworld with animal parts such as horns, fur, hooves, tails, and foot-long tongues who threaten to beat, kidnap or otherwise dispose of naughty children.  They were essential, however, to the Good Holy Man’s gift-giving practices.  As Al Ridenour explained in The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, St. Nicholas “not only withholds gifts from the unruly but sees to it that miscreants are punished. This ugly duty, however, is below his ecclesiastic dignity and falls therefore to the Krampus [or the other evil helpers], who either punishes them on the spot or carts them off in a basket to later be rent limb from limb, tossed into a pit or lake, or eaten.”  They are the silent enforcers—sort of like St. Nicholas’ own version of godfather Don Corleone’s henchman, Luca Brasi, whose job was to stand behind the godfather and say nothing. 

Until the Protestant Reformation, St. Nicholas and his evil helpers could be found in any predominately Catholic nation.  During the sixteenth century, however, a number of nations rejected Catholicism, and in those regions the role of St. Nicholas was typically replaced by a group I call the “faux Nicholases” or the “terror men.”  These gift-givers adopted a look in which St. Nicholas appeared to have been stripped of his bishop’s robes, sent to live alone in the wilderness for several years, and returned with filthy long hair and a beard, wearing a ragged coat, cloak, or animal skin and covered with dirt or ashes. Critically, the faux Nicholases performed both the gift-giving function of St. Nicholas and the disciplinary function of the evil helpers, and generally carried a whip or bundle of switches to convey their ability to punish young offenders.  These gift-givers can be identified because they are humans, work largely in Protestant regions,  travel alone and, over time, gradually shifted their gift-giving to Christmas rather than St. Nicholas’ Day.  

While St. Nicholas undoubtedly loves all of his evil helpers equally, Krampus is the first among equals.  Indeed, he seems at times to have his own public relations firm and has developed a remarkably large following for someone whose job is to abduct and beat or kill young children.  During the late nineteenth century, Krampus was the subject of numerous Victorian Christmas cards called Krampuskarten that depicted Krampus in all of his Satanic, red-tongued, child-abducting glory.  He also has his own holiday in Austria and southern Germany, Krampusnacht (“Krampus Night”) on December 5; his own “fun runs” called Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”) that occur annually in some Alpine towns; several horror movies, none of which seem to have any real connection to Christmas; and several picture books and biographies released in the past few years.  

If you want to send Krampuskarten this year it is probably too late, especially with the delays the U.S. Postal Service has been experiencing.  If you want to celebrate Krampusnacht, you have about a day to get prepared so you better send the invitations by email or telephone.   I tried to find suggestions for food, drink and decorations but, unfortunately, came up short.  I was sure that Martha Stewart would have a book on the subject, perhaps with tasty ways to prepare naughty boys and girls but, alas, she does not.  If anyone has thoughts (and, as I think about it, we should leave out the children), leave a comment and I will compile them for next year.    

Tom A. Jerman