Dec 052015


Today is Krampusnacht (Krampus Night). In Germanic folklore, Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes children during the Christmas season who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas (6 December), who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Regions in the Austrian diaspora feature similar figures and, more widely, Krampus is one of a number of Companions of Saint Nicholas in regions of Europe. The origins and early history of the figure are unknown. The usual nonsensical speculations about “pre-Christian traditions” gets unshipped of course, based on zero evidence. In a brief article discussing the figure, published in 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:

There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to ‘bind the Devil’ but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites.

Hmmm, “little doubt” eh? I have A LOT of doubt.


Discussing his observations while in Irdning, a small town in Styria in 1975, my former professor at UNC, John J. Honigmann, wrote:

The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year’s Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays. A large literature, much of it by European folklorists, bears on these subjects. … Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of “heathen” elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.

He ought to have known better than to write such drivel. Folklorists at UNC at the time could have set him straight, but I doubt he would have listened. At the time he was completely dismissive of my credentials (an arrogant upstart). He is quite correct that children are a central feature of many winter celebrations in Germanic regions, but then takes completely at face value what 19th-century European folklorists and local villagers have to say about these customs. I despair. Honigmann was a very accomplished anthropologist in areas he knew something about.


Krampus activities in Scandinavia, Alpine Germany, and Austria are well documented from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but in the 20th century, successive Austrian governments discouraged the practice. In the aftermath of the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Krampus tradition was prohibited by the Dollfuss regime under the Fatherland’s Front (Vaterländische Front) and the Christian Social Party. In the 1950s, the government distributed pamphlets titled “Krampus is an Evil Man”. Towards the end of the century, a popular resurgence of Krampus celebrations occurred and continues today. The Krampus tradition is being revived in Bavaria as well, along with a local artistic tradition of hand-carved wooden masks. There has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children.

Although Krampus appears in many variations, most share some common physical characteristics. He is hairy, usually brown or black, and has the cloven hooves and horns of a goat. His long-pointed tongue lolls out. He carries chains, sometimes said to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. He thrashes the chains for dramatic effect. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. He also carries ruten, bundles of birch branches to swat children with. Sometimes Krampus appears with a sack or a washtub strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. Some legends make mention of naughty children being put in the bag and being taken. This part of the tradition can also be found in connexion with other Companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwarte Piet.


A Krampuslauf is a run of celebrants dressed as the beast on 5 December night, with alcohol often playing a part. It is customary to offer a Krampus schnapps or other strong drink. These runs may include perchten, similarly wild spirits of Germanic folklore, which may be male or female, although the perchten are historically associated with the period between the winter solstice and Epiphany.

Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus since the 1800s. Sometimes introduced with Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from the Krampus), the cards usually have humorous rhymes and poems. Krampus is often featured looming menacingly over children. He is also shown as having one human foot and one cloven hoof. In some, Krampus has sexual overtones; he is pictured pursuing buxom women. Over time, the representation of Krampus in the cards has changed; older versions have a more frightening Krampus, while modern versions have a cuter, more Cupid-like creature. Krampus has also been used to decorate postcards and candy containers.


In Styria, the ruten bundles are presented by Krampus to families. The twigs are painted gold and displayed year-round in the house—a reminder to any child who has temporarily forgotten Krampus. In smaller, more isolated villages, the figure has other beastly companions, such as the antlered “wild man” figures. These Styrian companions of Krampus are called Schabmänner or Rauhen.

A toned-down version of Krampus is part of the popular Christmas markets in Austrian urban centers like Salzburg. In these, more tourist-friendly interpretations, Krampus is more humorous than fearsome. In the parts of Slovenia, whose culture was affected historically by Austrian culture, Krampus is called parkelj and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian form of St. Nicholas.


Krampus festivities are mostly associated with strong drinks, but the time of year is also associated with Christmas cooking. So here’s a recipe for Bavarian lebkuchen, a favorite of mine at this time of year. They are made from a kind of gingerbread that is soft and chewy, but with the same general flavor.


Lebkuchen were reputedly invented by monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century. Lebkuchen bakers were recorded as early as 1296 in Ulm, and 1395 in Nürnberg (Nuremberg). The latter is the most famous exporter today of the product known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen. Local history in Nuremberg relates that emperor Friedrich III held a Reichstag there in 1487 and he invited the children of the city to a special event where he presented Lebkuchen bearing his printed portrait to almost four thousand children. Historically, and due to differences in the ingredients, Lebkuchen are also known as honey cakes (Honigkuchen) or pepper cakes (Pfefferkuchen). Traditionally, the kuchen are quite large and may be 11.5 cm (4.5 in) in diameter if round, and larger if rectangular.


Since 1808, a variety of Nürnberg Lebkuchen made without flour has been called Elisenlebkuchen. It is uncertain whether the name Elise refers to the daughter of a gingerbread baker or the wife of a margrave. Her name is associated with some of the Lebkuchen produced by members of the guild. Since 1996, Nürnberger Lebkuchen is a Protected Designation of Origin and must be produced within the boundaries of the city.




250g plain flour
85g ground almonds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
200ml clear honey
1 lemon, finely grated zest
85g butter
½ tsp each ground cloves, grated nutmeg and black pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp baking powder


100g icing sugar
1 egg white, beaten


Put the dry ingredients in a large bowl, including the lemon zest, and mix well. Heat the honey and butter in a pan over low heat until the butter melts, stirring constantly. Pour the honey and butter mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to form an homogeneous batter. Cover and leave to cool.

Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Make about 30 balls (3cm wide) with your hands, then flatten each one slightly into a disk. Divide the kuchen between two baking trays lined with baking parchment, leaving room for them to expand. Bake for 15 mins, then cool on a wire rack.

You can decorate the kuchen in a number of ways, including simply dusting with icing sugar. To coat them with icing, prepare the icing by beating together the icing sugar, egg white, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of cold water. The resultant mix will be quite runny. Pour a small amount on each kuchen and spread it evenly with a cake knife. Let it dry in a warm, dry place