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Krampus and the Shady Christmas Characters of Europe

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Krampus: Happy Christmas?
Scary history of Krampus.

Krampus and these other shady characters to whom you are about to be introduced may come as a surprise. Especially for those of us brought up on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and the concept of a benevolent Santa Claus with a cast of cute sidekicks.

I advise Travel Belles and Boys to take any newfound knowledge as a warning, especially if you should ever find yourself in a country other than your own this holiday season. These characters may seem vaguely familiar sorts to most, at least from childhood nightmares, but we can take courage from the possibility that Santa and his team skipping over your house this year may be a very good thing.

In general Christmas myths and traditions in the Western world are derived from a combination of the Christian celebration of Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, and pagan Saturnalia celebrations held during the time of the Winter solstice. A thorough study of all the associated merry-and-trouble-making that takes place across the European continent this time of year would be exhaustive and quickly grow redundant. So for the purposes of this two-part series, I plan to share “the big three:” Austria, Holland, and Germany.


It is no surprise that the country that brought us what is perhaps the loveliest of all Christmas carols, Silent Night, is home to a traditional, if somewhat gaunt, Saint Nicholas figure. Austrian legend goes that Saint Nicholas was rewarded for his own good behavior on earth by being allowed to return to on his Saint Day each December 6 to bring gifts for all the good little children.

History of Krampus

The trouble starts with his grotesque “assistant,” Krampus, whose lifestyle tells quite the opposite story. The devil-like creature, complete with horns, fur and a forked red tongue, and weighed down by rusted heavy chains, trails behind Santa and threatens children who misbehave and don’t know their lessons. Weapon of choice: a wooden stick.

These days on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in the Salzkammergut region, Krampus parades are held. Young men dressed up as Krampus, wearing sheepskins and elaborate wooden devil masks, gather  and proceed to parade in packs of “Krampusse.” The most frightening activity of all however, takes place when the parade is over when they disperse and go on to beat anyone who gets in their way. The origin of Krampus parades can be traced back to pagan times when it was believed that similar evil beings dwelling in the caves of the surrounding mountains, would emerge every now and again brandishing whips. All I can say is, “Good job keeping a strange and diabolical tradition alive!”

Krampusse am Feuer
Krampus Trouble on December 5

This next Austrian character wins the honor of making the prospect of staying home with Dick Clark, sound like a most excellent idea. Bringing entire new meaning to the phrase, “Silent Night,” a bearded, old and ugly, man, named Sylvester lurks in the shadows on New Year’s Eve. Recognizable by wearing a mistletoe wreath on his head, the trouble starts when unsuspecting ladies walk by and he leaps from the shadows and aggressively kisses them.

Candy Store 3
Zwarte Piet is happy now


Even though he lives in sunny Spain and travels around by steamship, The Netherland’s Sinterklaas is believed by many to be the most directly related Saint Nicholas figure to the American Santa Claus. He arrives each November in the Port of Amsterdam greeted with a level of national fanfare that far surpasses Santa’s debut each Thanksgiving at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

For the next several weeks Sinterklaas travels from town to town, greeting the hordes of children who come to see him. He is assisted by the Dutch counterparts to American elves, Piets, or helpers.  His visit culminates on December 5 on the eve of his Saint day with the exchange of gifts.

The most notorious of all the Piets is Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a slave character whose depiction dates back to Colonial times. His existence in Holland is unique on the continent, and back in the day until around the 1950s, it was the wrath of the Zwarte Piet that struck fear in the hearts of Dutch children. In addition to the usual threats of receiving lumps of coal, and switches and ashes, Black Peter would pop the most irretrievably bad children into a bag, and haul them with Sinterklaas and his motley entourage on the steamship back to Spain.

zwarte pieten
I think the Zwarte Piets here are about to pop the children on the left into the bag and take them off to Spain as punishment for wearing Sinterklaas hats  from McDonalds.

As you can imagine the existence of Zwarte Piet always manages to raise a few eyebrows. His character has been re-invented over the years to be just another Piet, who managed to get some soot and ashes on his face in doing the work of his patron Saint.  These days Zwarte Piet wears a big smile on his face and is esteemed in a manner comparable to Head Elf.  As can be seen in the essay by David Sedaris, Six to Eight Black Men, the Zwart Piet tradition is seen as extremely odd by almost all outsiders, but embraced by the majority of the Dutch. It doesn’t hurt that he now distributes cookies and peppermints, instead of spankings, and that part about hauling kids off in a sack to Spain is a treat reserved only for the most desperate of parents.

The second installment of The Shady Characters of Christmas will be back next week, where an entire post may be dedicated the country of Germany, well, because it’s a big country. For now I leave you with this from last year’s Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude from The Colbert Report (fast forward to 2:30 for a segment featuring Krampus.) Enjoy!

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude – Hallmark & Krampus<a>
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive


* Photos via Flickr:Leo.laempel, celesteh, zoetnet

I did end up writing Part II about some of the interesting female characters from Christmas history:  Part II, The Bad Belles of the Holiday Season (aka: Krampus meets his match)

For a look at the more beautiful side of Austria at Christmas, you may enjoy reading Experiencing the Viennese Christmas Markets

Or how about something about New Year’s traditions from around the world having to do with wine?

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About the author

Margo Millure lives in Richmond, Virginia. She is a portrait photographer, writer and founder of Travel Belles. Learn more about her at

18 thoughts on “Krampus and the Shady Christmas Characters of Europe”

  1. LOVE this, Margo! What fascinating traditions. 🙂 I’m especially intrigued by the Holland story since that’s where I’ll be for Christmas this year. 🙂

  2. We just celebrated St. Nicholas day here yesterday – with the Lorraine & Alsace in a feud over who can claim rights over dear old St. Nick, lol- plus just learned there’s another lively character who delivers the presents to kids in Brittany. So much to learn about Christmas traditions in Europe, what a fun post!

  3. Phew! Glad to see we all survived St. Nicholas Day 🙂

    @Ayngelina – I know! I just heard a parent threatening her child in Target yesterday w/ “Santa’s watching!” How creepy is that looking from the outside? At least in Europe, Santa had minions to do his dirty work.

    Krista! Will you please bring me some smiling Zwarte Piet chocolate if you see any?

    Shannon, If you visit YouTube and look at a few of the Krampus parade videos, I’m pretty sure you will find yourself there one of these days.

    Santafetraveler, It’s amazing we’re not all scarred for life. The vintage things are really fascinating… leaving no doubt as to the real stories that were floating around.

    Amanda, I am still trying to absorb it… In my research I discovered there is a “movement” to bring Krampus to the US. Rather concerning.

    Zablon, YES!!

    Tuula, There was much more info than I could have imagined, with so many regions and towns having their own traditions… Instead of writing about Germany next week, I may do the “bad belles of Christmas in Europe” because there are quite a few female characters out making mayhem in December I found pretty intriguing 🙂

  4. Christmas would be much more interesting in this house had St. Nick had a crazy demon following him around. LOVE that first picture – great find!

  5. Wow, this was so interesting and fun! My mom had us celebrate the German St Nicolas Day (Dec 6) growing up, and I always thought it was wrong that St Nicolas gave us a lump of coal in our shoes… it was supposed to be a joke. But you tell that to a 10 year old!

  6. Thanks guys! So glad you enjoyed reading it. It was definitely fun writing about these odd Christmas traditions from around the world. And Leigh, I will check out your post… I don’t know about this Caganer. 🙂

  7. A Dutch friend once told me about Black Peter, and after asking her to repeat herself because it sounded so ludicrous (and politically incorrect), I starting to suspect that jolly Santa Claus was not the only Christmas character around. I’m looking forward to the next article in the series!

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