Krampus, the devilish monster of Christmas, has perhaps more familiarity around the world than he ever has, with gatherings in the United States, and even a 2015 film. In the late 19th century, he may have appeared on your Christmas greeting cards, not as a bearer of kitsch, but as a warning to bad children.
As a counterpart to Saint Nicholas, the predecessor of the more approachable Santa Claus, Krampus was evoked in Central Europe for centuries as a warning to kids to be good. Costumed Krampuses caused havoc in the streets of Alpine villages during annual December 6 festivals. What’s interesting about his current image is how it carries all the visual culture he’s traveled through, from pagan god to Christian devil. Al Ridenour in his 2016 book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil notes that the Krampuskarten (Krampus cards) started to appear in the late 1880s, and “introduced the notion of the Krampus to regions beyond the creature’s Alpine homeland.” However, since the artists making these cards were often based in cities, not participating in the more rural traditions, their interpretations tended into more “Catholic depictions of the devil or the pagan figure of Pan.”
As the imagery spread, the cards became less for children and more for adults, including some cards of Krampus terrorizing buxom women. Monte Beauchamp, author of the 2010 Krampus: The Devil of Christmas, told Collectors Weekly that little is now known of the artists behind the cards, as after the two world wars “all the key postcard publishing houses in Europe were destroyed, so no records exist as to which artists drew what.”
What we’re left with is this uncanny creature invading the holiday cheer, his long tongue lashing, chains flying from his arms, and pointed horns bending from his furry head, his body a collage of centuries of visualizing the darker side of our folkloric figures.