Some friends of ours are hosting a shin-dig tonight with a jocular Krampus theme. “Krampus?,” you might ask (like I did), “what on earth is that?” Krampus is a character in winter stories told to children in parts of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. More than a character, he’s a creature, a demon — and a sinister-looking one, at that.

“According to legend, Krampus accompanies St. Nicholasduring the Christmas season, warning and punishing bad children, in contrast to St. Nicholas, who gives gifts to good children. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, it stuffs the child in its sack and carries the frightened thing away to its lair, presumably to devour for its Christmas dinner.” — Wikipedia entry on Krampus

Krampus postcard from the 1900s

Yikes. Krampus be crazy!

But he is not unique. Krampus is one of several companions of Father Christmas found in Alpine countries (countries located near the Alps). All of these figures are described as dark, be they

covered in black soot, wearing black garb or having a black soul. As Santa rewards children who were nice, most of the companions punish children who were naughty. AKA the “ good cop, bad cop” of Christmas. Here are the other Alpine companions of St. Nick:

Belsnickel in the 1950s

Belsnickel is a kind of like a benign-ish Krampus. Still kind of scary to look at, but doesn’t threaten to eat kids. He just leaves coal in your stocking if you’ve been bad. Or a switch, which is as much a gift for your parents as it is a punishment for you. Eek!

Knecht Ruprecht is a lot like Belsnickel, though his narrative seems to have more variation. K.R. does the coal / switch thing for naughties. He also has more freedom of expression when it comes to chastening and can beat you with a bag of ashes if he doesn’t like you. Unlike Belsnickel, K.R. can reward good kiddos with candy. Also, K.R. looks more like a cranky old man than an otherwordly creature.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is the only of the companions who isn’t tasked with doling out punishment to naughty children. He’s nice. He show’s up early (covered in ash), before Christmas, to entertain and to hand out candy.

St. Nicholas and Black Pete in 1948

Knecht Ruprecht the Curmudgeon

What do all of these companions have in common (besides being dudes)? They are likely based on the pre-Christian goddess Perchta, who is dominant in the winter season. As our friend over at The Odd Gods explains, Perchta is often viewed as a god of duality. Perchta’s name means “the bright one” and yet she is also known as the “belly-slitter.”

“Perchta seems to have very much a dual nature – she is alternately described as kind or violent, and physically as gray, wizened, old, and ugly or a tall and beautiful young woman, veiled and clothed in white.” — Aspects of Perchta

Krampus is thought to be an incarnation of Perchta’s violent side, of Schiachperchten — the “ugly Perchten.” Given the similarities across all of Kringle’s companions, there is conjecture (on the Interwebs) they are all reinventions of Perchta’s wild side. Aside from Black Pete, all of the companions are intimidating figures meant to frighten children into compliance.*

Hmm…this has me wondering just how good (and how bad) I have been this past year. What about you readers? Have you been naughty or nice? Will you get candy from Father Christmas, or will you get beat down with a bag of ashes? Better still, why do you deserve candy or why are you on the naughty list?

* Scaring childing into good behavior is a common theme in fairy tales. Many argue violence in fairy tales was a way to frighten children in to good behavior. However, some believe fairy tales were a way to help children process the events of their daily lives.

Which I can also believe, especially since that was the inspiration behind Joss Whedon’s BtVS. The demons in BtVS were symbolic of the trails of adolescence and young adulthood. So Buffy wasn’t just slaying physical demons, she was slaying metaphysical demons, too.

+ Featured image is “Nikolaus and Krampus in Austria. Newspaper-illustration from 1896.”