The story of Saint Nicholas is pretty well-known — he’s a pleasant, magical old man, similar to Santa Claus, who wanders around on the night of the 6th of December leaving gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children. But in some countries, Saint Nicholas has a sinister counterpart — Krampus.
In Europe’s Alpine and Eastern countries, Krampus is a popular figure. He is said to accompany Saint Nicholas to the homes of children and while Saint Nicholas leaves gifts for the well-behaved ones, Krampus is in charge of the naughty children. In some cases, he is said to leave sticks or coal in their shoes, whip them with birch branches, or carry them off in the sack or washtub he wears on his back so he can eat them, drown them, or deliver them to Hell.
It’s all rather dark.
In some countries, Krampus gets his own holiday, appropriately named Krampusnacht, on December 5th. Young men dress up like Krampus and roam the streets, often as part of a parade, rattling rusty chains and bells to frighten children. People even exchange Krampus-themed holiday cards called Krampuskarten, often featuring the phrase “Greetings from Krampus” along with humorous poems and images of Krampus with one human foot and one cloven hoof, looming menacingly over naughty children or chasing buxom women. Older versions feature the standard demon, while newer cards opt for a cuter, Cupid-like Krampus.
In recent years, Krampusnacht celebrations in larger, more tourist-friendly cities, especially in Austria, have switched to a more humorous, less terrifying Krampus for the sake of visitors, which I’m sure is a relief to small children everywhere.
But I really can’t take the Swiss Krampus that seriously because he’s called Schmutzli. Try to say that without laughing.