St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain. Here are some things you might not have known about Santa’s demonic companion.
1. KRAMPUS IS A CHRISTMAS DEMON.
Who is Krampus? In Austria and across the German-speaking Alpine region, the demonic character is a crucial part of the holiday season. He’s a devilish figure, with long horns and a goaty beard, much like typical portrayals of Satan. You might see him posed harmlessly on a greeting card or reproduced in chocolates or figurines. But you might also encounter a procession of Krampuses stalking through the town, laden with bells and chains, intimidating onlookers or whipping them with bundles of sticks.
2. DECEMBER 5 BELONGS TO KRAMPUS. IF YOU SURVIVE, YOU MIGHT GET PRESENTS.
December 5 is Krampusnacht, when Krampus reigns. In the real world, people might attend Krampus balls, or young men from the local Krampusgruppe might don carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains, and elaborate costumes to run through town in a Krampuslauf (Krampus run), frightening and sometimes beating bystanders. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house. He might leave bundles of sticks for bad children—or he might just hit them with the sticks instead. He might toss them into a sack or basket on his back and then throw it in a stream, or he might straight-up take them to hell.
The next day, though, is Nikolastaug, St. Nicholas’ Day—the same St. Nicholas whose Dutch name, Sinterklass, evolved into “Santa Claus.” In other words, it’s time for presents for all the little girls and boys … that is, all the ones who haven’t already been beaten, damned, or drowned.
3. KRAMPUS MAY BE A MONSTER, BUT HE PALS AROUND WITH SANTA.
Originally, Krampus was a purely pagan creation, said to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology. But he got grafted onto Christian tradition as a sidekick of St. Nicholas, similar to figures like Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany. Since the 17th century, the two have been linked in a sort of Christmasy yin-yang, with Krampus as St. Nick’s dark companion. Costumed figures of the two traditionally visit houses and businesses together on Krampusnacht: St. Nick brings the gifts, and Krampus brings the pain.
4. KRAMPUS REVELERS WILL HIT, PUSH, AND WHIP SPECTATORS AT THEIR PARADES.
The Krampus of legend whips people with his birch bundle, but he’s a literal demon. Surely the costumed human Krampus partiers wouldn’t engage in such violence, right? Wrong. Here’s a description of the Salzburg Krampuslauf from a tourist who expected mere costumed buffoonery and came home with welts:
The narrow streets in the Old City section of Salzburg were packed with pedestrians as the Krampusse stomped through. Many people were caught unaware and reacted with terror. Some would flee and try to seek refuge in a shop or restaurant, only to be pursued by a determined Krampus. With so many easy targets, we again managed to escape largely unharmed. At times we were chased, jostled and struck, but compared with the brutality we witnessed, it was obvious we had been spared the full brunt of what Krampus could muster.
This writer went to Krampuslaufs in three cities and described “savage beatings” to people’s thighs and shins, as well as a Krampus chasing down and sitting on a teenager. But despite the fear and bruises, it’s all in good fun, and hey—at least they aim for the legs.
5. THE APPEARANCE OF KRAMPUS VARIES, BUT HE OFTEN HAS ONE HUMAN FOOT AND ONE CLOVEN HOOF.
The Krampus costumes at Krampuslaufs are aesthetically varied—they may be reminiscent of devils, bats, goats, Abominable Snowmen, or something out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. There are usually some kind of horns and hides involved, but there’s also a lot of free rein.
Krampus has also been a fixture on Austrian holiday greeting cards since the 1800s, where he’s shown pursuing women or menacing children. On the cards, Krampus traditionally has a long tongue that sometimes lolls halfway down his chest, and sports one human foot and one cloven hoof—no one is entirely sure why.
6. SOME AUSTRIAN HOUSEHOLDS HAD YEAR-ROUND DÉCOR MEANT TO REMIND KIDS TO STAY GOOD OR KRAMPUS WOULD GET THEM.
A 1958 article about the Krampus legend in Styria (a state in southeast Austria) reports that Krampus would deliver gold-painted bundles of birch sticks to children, small versions of the bundle of twigs he would use to beat people. The families would hang the birch twigs on the wall for the rest of the year as decoration—and to remind kids to stay in line. The article rather primly notes that the twigs are hung “particularly in those houses where the behaviour of the children merits the application of corporal correction.”
7. KRAMPUS WAS ONCE BANNED BY FASCISTS.
Between 1934 and 1938, when Austria was under Fascist rule, Krampus was seen as a symbol of (variously) sin, anti-Christian ideals, and Social Democrats. The newspaper of the Austrian Catholic Union called for a Krampus boycott, and the government of Lienz, the capital of East Tyrol, forbade Krampus dances, and further mandated that all aspiring St. Nicholases must be licensed by the city. They also pledged to arrest Krampus whenever they saw him. Though it didn’t rise to the level of a ban, in 1953 the head of Vienna’s kindergarten system also published a pamphlet calling Krampus “an evil man” and warning parents that celebrating him could scar their children for life.
8. KRAMPUS MASKS ARE VALUABLE PIECES OF FOLK ART.
Sure, you could probably pick up some plastic horns at Tyrolian Target, but that’s not really in the right spirit. Traditionally, the masks worn in a Krampus procession are made of wood, hand-carved by specialist artisans. For instance, Ludwig Schnegg makes the masks for all 80 members of the Haiming Krampusgruppe—and he’s been making them since 1981. Antique masks often wind up in museums; either folklore museums, or ones explicitly devoted to the Krampus. The towns of Kitzbühel and Stallhofen both feature Krampus museums that collect old costumes and masks, and until recently, there was a museum in Suetschach as well.
9. YOU CAN CELEBRATE KRAMPUS EVEN IF YOU’RE IN THE U.S.
Krampus has become increasingly popular on this side of the pond—he’s shown up on Venture Brothers, Grimm, Supernatural, The Colbert Report, and American Dad, and there’s a Krampus-inspired horror movie. And in an increasing number of American cities, you can go to a Krampus party, Krampus costume contest, or even a traditional Krampuslauf. Los Angeles in particular has a burgeoning Krampus scene, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn hosts a yearly costume party. You can also get down with Krampus in Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, Richmond, Orlando, and other cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Of course, for some people the holidays are scary enough without throwing a demon beast with a penchant for physical assault into the mix. But if you’re the kind of person who goes to extra-scary haunted houses at Halloween, take heart: That terror doesn’t have to stop just because we’ve entered a season of togetherness and joy.
Why Does Santa Claus Come Down the Chimney?
Santa Claus as we know him today has only existed since the 19th century, and he first slid down the chimney in a 1812 book by Washington Irving. But the fireplace served as a venue for magical visitors long before Santa Claus. During the 15th century, the French scholar Petrus Mamoris became concerned about a widespread belief that witches could pass through solid objects like walls and closed doors in order to enter homes. Believing Christians were granting too much power to the occult, Mamoris offered a practical explanation: witches, elves, and the like simply entered via thechimney. This idea gained widespread cultural currency. In Renaissance-era fairy tales, fairies appeared via chimneys, and during the same period, witches were said to fly up their chimneys on broomsticks to attend Sabbat meetings.
Throughout European folklore, the hearth and chimney act as a liminal space connecting the natural and supernatural worlds. According to legend, many supernatural creatures exploit this special intermediary space to enter homes—for good or ill. Scottish and English legend feature the brownie, a household spirit that aids in domestic tasks, but only at night, and enters and exits via the chimney. In Slovenia, a shape-shifting fairy called the Skrat brings riches to human families who cultivate his favor, flying down the chimney in a fiery form when delivering money. According to Celtic lore, a nursery bogie calledthe bodach sneaks down chimneys and kidnaps children. Some chimney-traveling spirits appear specifically during the winter holidays. In Greece, goblins known as Kallikantzaroi slip down the chimney to wreak havoc during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Italy’s La Befana, sometimes called the Christmas witch, delivers gifts the night before Epiphany, leaving her presents in shoes set by the fireplace.
While La Befana wasn’t making widespread deliveries in the early United States, other mythical holiday gift-bringers were. Pelznichol—also called Pelznikel, Belsnickel, or Bellschniggle—traveled among German immigrant communities in 19th-century Pennsylvania, scaring naughty children and rewarding good ones. This whip-wielding wild man was a bit more intimidating than jolly old Santa Claus, but he served a similar purpose.
According to a December 19, 1827 issue of the Philadelphia Gazette, “He is the precursor of the jolly old elfe ‘Christkindle’ or ‘St. Nicholas,’ and makes his personal appearance, dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts … It is no sooner dark than the Bellschniggle’s bell is heard flitting from house to house … He slips down the chimney, at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his presents quietly in the prepared stocking.” Pelznichol comes from the German word pelz, meaning hide or fur coat, and Nichol, meaning Nicholas. Literally “Furry Nicholas,” Pelznichol was a forerunner to the American Santa Claus—and a mythical companion of the same ancient saint.
While the character of Santa Claus draws from numerous mythical sources, his namesake is St. Nicholas, the 4th-century Bishop of Myra, an ancient town in what is now Turkey. In the most famous tale involving St. Nicholas, the bishop anonymously delivers bags of gold to a poor family to use as dowries for their daughters, keeping the father from selling the girls into prostitution. Early versions of the story have the saint tossing the money through the window—appropriate, given that St. Nicholas lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries, 900 years before the chimney. But as the story changed over time, St. Nicholas began dropping the gold down the chimney. A 14th-century fresco in a Serbian church shows the chimney had become part of the legend by the early Renaissance period.
Thanks to his generous dowry gifts and a host of miracles—including resurrecting a group of murdered boys who had been chopped into pieces—St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children, and his feast day was associated with special treats for the little ones. By the 16th century, it was tradition for Dutch children to leave their shoes on the hearth the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas. They would then wake to find the shoes filled with candy and presents, which they believed the saint had lowered down the chimney. Though Catholic saints were renounced during the Reformation, St. Nicholas stayed popular in the Low Countries, even among some Dutch Protestants, and Dutch settlers brought their traditions to North America.
The name Santa Claus is an Americanized version of the abbreviated Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, but Dutch colonists did not popularize him, as most of these were saint-averse Reformation Dutch, and their influence waned once New Amsterdam became New York. In 1809, it was writer Washington Irving who helped spark an interest in St. Nicholas when he featured the saint in his satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which made fun of antiquarians obsessed with the city’s Dutch heritage. In an expanded version of Knickerbocker’s published in 1812, Irving added a reference—the first known—to St. Nicholas “rattl[ing] down the chimney” himself, rather than simply dropping the presents down.
It was the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”—that popularized the idea of Santa Claus tumbling down the chimney. Initially published anonymously, the poem first appeared in print in 1823 and it wasn’t until 1844 that Clement Clark Moore, a professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at a bible college, claimed the work, though his authorship is still disputed by some. The poem features Santa Claus descending down the chimney “with a bound,” then rising up the chimney after delivering his gifts. The poem began to be published annually in newspapers and magazines, and the illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast cemented its vision of Santa Claus with his drawings of a plump, cheerful, bearded man delivering gifts in a sleigh.
Millions of American children came to believe that Santa Claus slid down the chimney to deliver their presents. But what does Santa do if there’s no chimney? As coal and wood stoves took the place of open fireplaces in many American homes, a parallel tradition developed: Santa squeezed down the stove pipe. By 1857, this image was common enough that The New York Times referred to it as a given.
It might seem ridiculous to imagine the portly gift-bringer somehow stuffing himself into a six-inch stove pipe, but during the mid-19th century, Santa Claus was envisioned differently in one key way: he was miniature. In his poem, Moore calls Santa “a jolly old elf,” suggesting his size is elfin: he is a “little old driver” in a “miniature sleigh” with “eight tiny reindeer.” He has a “droll little mouth,” and it’s his “little round belly” that “shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.”
Illustrations from the time, including many of Nast’s drawings, show a miniature Santa who needs to stand on a chair to reach the stockings on the mantelpiece. But while this elfin Santa could slide easily down the chimney, even he would have difficulty squeezing through a stove pipe. In published letters to Santa, some children inquired about his method of entry: “Do you crawl down stove pipes?” Of course, Santa Claus is magical, so while children may have been curious about the practicalities involved, it wasn’t a barrier to belief. One boy told Santa confidently in 1903, “I watch for you every night in the stove.”
Adults were not as sanguine. In 1893, Harper’s Weekly published a worried opinionpiece about the decline of Santa Claus. The stove pipe made it harder to believe in Santa, the author observed, but the rise of steam radiators and hot-air heating made it essentially impossible:
“We know of no contemporary personage who is suffering more from allowing himself to drop behind the times than our friend Santa Claus. […] The downward course of Santa Claus began with the introduction of the cast-iron stove. As long as the old-fashioned fireplace lasted he was secure. As the children gathered around this romantic old fraud, toasting their toes while their backs gradually but surely congealed, the story of Santa Claus and his chimney-descending habits seemed entirely probable. There was scarcely a single stumbling-block for faith. […] But after the arrival of the comfortable albeit unromantic stove, when the child was told of Santa Claus, he simply looked at the pipe and put his tongue in his cheek. Still, he tried to believe in him, and succeeded after a fashion. Then even the stove disappeared in many households, to be succeeded by the steam-radiator or a hot-air hole in the floor. The notion of Santa Claus coming down a steam-pipe or up through a register was even more absurd than the idea of his braving the dimensions of a stove-pipe. […] Now it occurs to us that all this might have been avoided if people had had the wisdom to keep Santa Claus up with the times. […] When the air-tight stove was introduced, a mode of ingress other than the chimney should have been provided.”
This author needn’t have worried; Americans were not about to let Santa Claus disappear from cultural memory. Indeed, as the 20th century dawned, he became only more popular, as businesses enlisted him for copious advertising campaigns, like the famous 1930s Coca-Cola ads designed by Haddon Sundblom.
Have you got a Big Question you’d like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional Sources:Christmas in America: A History
Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling of American Holidays
Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus
Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years
Think of Charles Dickens and Christmastime and your mind will probably go instantly to A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s classic tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his magical yuletide conversion proved an immediate success on its release about a week before Christmas 1843: The initial print run reportedly sold out in just five days, and the book continued to sell well even after Christmas and well into the following year.
Despite that success, A Christmas Carol wasn’t quite the money-spinner its author might have hoped. Dickens had offered to cover the book’s printing costs himself to make up for the lukewarm reception his serialized novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was receiving from readers and reviewers, but his expensive and exacting tastes meant that he initially only cleared a disappointing profit of £230 from 6000 copies sold. Nevertheless, A Christmas Carol proved popular enough with readers and reviewers alike for Dickens to attempt to repeat its success several more times in the mid-1840s, publishing a new Christmas story almost every year until 1848. But such was the success of A Christmas Carol that the four festive stories he published in this time—some overlooked classics, others critical flops and missteps—have since largely become eclipsed by their better-known predecessor, and today remain among the least well-known of Dickens’s back catalogue.
1. THE CHIMES: A GOBLIN STORY OF SOME BELLS THAT RANG AN OLD YEAR OUT AND A NEW YEAR IN (1844)
In June 1844, six months after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens signed a new publishing deal, part of the contract of which was a Christmas-themed tale set for publication that Christmas. The story he wrote was The Chimes.
Dickens spent much of 1844 staying in a villa in Genoa, Italy, but away from the clamor of London’s streets he struggled to find inspiration, and suffered a prolonged bout of writer’s block. “Never did I stagger so upon a threshold before,” he wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster. “I seem as if I had plucked myself out of my proper soil when I left Devonshire-terrace [his home, near Regent’s Park] and could take root no more until I return to it.” That was until one morning, while sitting on the terrace of his villa, Dickens lost himself in what Forster called the “tuneless, grating, discordant, jerking, hideous vibration” of the church bells below. A few days later, he again wrote to Forster enigmatically saying, “We have heard THE CHIMES at midnight.”
The Chimes tells the story of an elderly messenger (a “ticket-porter”) named Toby “Trotty” Veck. After a series of chance meetings with several other characters—from a poor orphaned girl to a money-grubbing politician—Trotty finds himself questioning the growing inequality he sees around him every day and, disillusioned, wanders off into the night after hearing the church bells call to him. Finding the local church open, Trotty climbs the bell tower and discovers that the spirits of the church bells have come to life, surrounded by their goblin attendants. There, they present him with a series of visions showing the future of his family and the characters he has encountered that night—culminating with a terrifying vision of his 21-year-old daughter, Meg, contemplating suicide by throwing herself from a bridge. Just as he reaches out to try to save her, Trotty wakes to hear the bells of New Year’s morning ringing; Dickens leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Trotty’s awakening was really a dream or not.
After the success of A Christmas Carol, there was much anticipation for Dickens’s follow-up story, and The Chimes ultimately proved a lucrative success: Some 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months alone. But the story’s harsh social commentary divided critics and in the shadow of its predecessor, A Christmas Carol, the popularity of The Chimes has failed to stand the test of time.
Want to check it out for yourself? Read it here.
2. THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH (1845)
Probably the best known of Dickens’s Christmas stories that isn’t A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth tells the story of John Peerybingle and his young wife Dot. Informed by a miserly local toymaker, Tackleton, that his wife is having an affair, John consults the family’s guardian angel—in the form of a cricket chirruping away on the household hearth—for advice. It eventually transpires that there has been a grave misunderstanding, and in typically festive Dickensian fashion the hard-hearted Tackleton sees the error of his ways in a Scrooge-like revelation in the conclusion of the story.
Like its predecessor, The Cricket on the Hearth was a huge commercial success for Dickens—although its schmaltzy and sentimental storyline did not sit well with everyone. While Dickens’s frenemy and fellow author William Thackeray called it “a good Christmas book, illuminated with extra gas, crammed with extra bonbons, French plums and sweetnesses,” The Times went so far as to demand that “we owe it to literature to protest against this last production of Mr Dickens.” You can decide for yourself by reading it here.
3. THE BATTLE OF LIFE: A LOVE STORY (1846)
Written while on holiday in Switzerland in 1846, Dickens’s fourth consecutive Christmas story was The Battle of Life. It told the story of two sisters, Grace and Marion Jeddler, Marion’s fiancé Alfred, and her apparent lover, a gentleman named Michael Warden. Through a series of machinations and misunderstandings, Marion vanishes from the village having supposedly abandoned Alfred and eloped with Michael, and in her absence Alfred grows closer to and eventually marries her sister, Grace. The years pass by and Marion eventually returns—whereupon the real reason behind her disappearance is revealed, and the sisters are reconciled.
The Battle of Life was not a critical success: Reviewers lambasted its unrealistic and underdeveloped plot and characters, and it has remained among the least admired and least remembered of Dickens’s works. Nevertheless, riding on the back of A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth, the book sold a staggering 23,000 copies on its day of release in 1846—Dickens’s fans, if not the critics, were suitably won over. You can make up your own mind here.
4. THE HAUNTED MAN AND THE GHOST’S BARGAIN (1848)
After a year off from the Christmas market, Dickens returned in 1848 with The Haunted Man, a tale that brought him back to the supernatural theme that had proved so successful in A Christmas Carol. In the story, a Mr. Redlaw, a reclusive and cynical scientist tormented by the death of his sister, is visited by his own döppelganger late on Christmas Eve night and given the gift of forgetting all the painful memories that have haunted him since his sister’s passing. The catch, however, is that anyone who comes into contact with Redlaw is also made to forget their memories—and as the story progresses, Redlaw’s influence goes on to ruin the lives of all those around him. You can find out what happens here.
The Haunted Man sold an impressive 18,000 copies on release in December 1848, but the critical reception to the story was mixed. Perhaps as a result—and perhaps in light of his longer novels becoming ever more serious and weighty in their political and social commentaries (Bleak House, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities were all still works in progress at this point)—Dickens did not revisit the Christmas genre in book form again.