Krampus and Other Kid-Crunching Cannibals

Krampus, the Christmas monster who preys on naughty children, may stem from the use of monster stories by hunter-gatherers to frighten children into obeying. Widely believed to pre-date Christianity, Krampus is akin to monsters in forager oral tradition who target ornery children. These monsters typically use a basket to haul victims off to their lair in the wilderness, with the explicit or implicit goal of eating them.

Why might parents terrorize their offspring thusly? The answer lies in childhood itself: children are weaker, slower, less experienced, and hence more vulnerable to hazards than adults are. This problem is compounded by their curiosity and comparative lack of impulse control, which may override their caution. This puts parents in a pickle: they cannot supervise their children continuously, yet must somehow prevent them from engaging in activities that might lead to abduction, injury, or death.

One solution is to scare children straight: recent—and, presumably, ancient—hunter-gatherers used monster stories to police children’s behavior. For example, Dakota children were told stories about a treacherous being called Double-face: “if we strayed near the woods, someone was always sure to warn us that the Double-face might get us. Nobody knew what that was, but we were all afraid of it.” Apache children were told stories about Big Owl, a cannibal: “If a child doesn’t go to sleep and cries at night, they tell it that the owl is coming to take it away. Or the word, ‘It is coming,’ is used as a scare word to frighten children and make them behave.” Among the Ahtna, “unruly children were threatened by the Owl, by huge monsters . . . underground or in deep lakes, by Bush Indians who kidnap those who stray, or by . . . an abductor of naughty children.”

These examples illustrate the most common reasons foragers give for telling monster stories to children: to discourage them from crying, straying, or playing in dangerous places—all of which jeopardize their safety. Crying exposes a child’s location to potential attackers, as parents well recognized. The Apache, for example, believed that a child “must learn to be quiet at a command. Enemies often lurk perilously near, and the encampments may suffer severe loss before help can be summoned.” Similarly, Iñupiaq adults report “having been admonished when they were children to be quiet while playing outside so as not to attract the attention of passing strangers.”

By removing them from the protection of the group, wandering, too, makes children more vulnerable to attack. As an Apache man notes, “It is not well to have . . . children out playing far from camp. If the Plains Indians come, many may be killed.” Children who wander off and get lost are also vulnerable to dying of thirst, hunger, exposure, injury, predation, or drowning. The latter is referenced in Dena’ina stories about “Foggy Men,” man-eating monsters who live in the “swampy lowlands with their maze of lakes, sloughs, and winding streams” and blanket them with fog and mist. These stories identify a habitat that harbors multiple dangers and is difficult to navigate, making mishap more likely. Danger is exacerbated by darkness, and some foragers discouraged children from playing outside after nightfall. The Tillamook, for example, “did not want their children to play outside when it became evening, because possibly some dangerous thing might mingle with them. . . . Perhaps a wild person . . . might steal (enslave) them.”

Foragers also tell monster stories to prevent children from eating while their parents are away. Hunting-and-gathering burns a lot of calories, which must be replenished after each excursion. Sometimes adults come home empty-handed; thus, if their food stores have been devoured in their absence, they won’t have enough energy to go out foraging the next day. A Tillamook tale explicitly references this problem by stating the rule that “‘Children must not eat when they are alone, when there are no grown people present.’” When the children in the story eat salmon eggs after their parents leave, they are visited by Wild Woman, who inserts a skewer “in the anus of each child who had eaten” and puts “them around the fire to cook.” The narrator affirms that this tale “was told to children to keep them from eating when their parents were away.”

Krampus, too, is a punitive monster. He throws “naughty children into the wooden tub which hangs at his back, and thence into the nearest stream” or carries them off to his lair. He also wields a bundle of birch sticks, which he uses to “swat ‘wicked’ children” or distributes to parents for the same purpose. Krampuskarten, greeting cards exchanged on St. Nicholas’ Day, “stress the importance of good behavior if one hopes to receive a gift from Nikolaus—and escape the attentions of Krampus.” One card, for example, declares that “The Krampus leaves you in peace today!/Because you have been good!”

The plethora of bogeymen in world folklore suggests that this parenting strategy might be universal. For example, Icelandic lore features the giantess Gryla, who descends from her mountain cave to hunt her favorite food—naughty children—which she carries off in a sack and boils into stew. The Coco of Spanish and Portuguese tradition kidnaps and eats children who misbehave, and in Trinidad, parents frighten children with stories of jumbies. Japanese tradition features the Namahage, an ogre who shames cry-babies and slackers. As part of New Year’s festivities, men dressed up as Namahage go from door to door wielding knives and pails and “admonishing children who may be guilty of laziness or bad behavior.” Even Saint Nicholas is linked with this practice: in older Dutch traditions, Sinterklaas and his assistant, Zwarte Piet, stuff disobedient children into a burlap sack and send them off to be enslaved in Spain.

If you think you’re safe because you live in modern times, you’d better watch out. Don’t cry or pout. A visitor from the North Pole is coming soon: he knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice—and he’s carrying a big sack.

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