The history of the real St. Nicolas and the origins of Krampus

Category:  The Arts
Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 at 11:11 AM
The history of the real St. Nicolas and the origins of Krampus  by Anna Ashcraft
Old German greeting card featuring St. Nicolas and Krampus.

This month, we celebrate Christmas as a day to give gifts to loved ones, to be with family, and to be thankful. Children all over the world are told tales and believe in Santa Claus. But how did this holiday come to be and who was the original Santa Claus?

Saint Nicolas, a Greek Bishop from the third century, around 280 A.D., was a man who gave all his inherited wealth to the sick people in need throughout Europe. He lived during the time of the “Great Persecution,” when bibles were burned and Christians were beaten and killed. This did not stop him and he kept helping others. His kind soul eventually ended up in jail and he was tormented for his beliefs.

Nicolas died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D., and this anniversary is celebrated in Europe. Dec. 6. is St. Nicolas Day, until the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, when it was moved to Dec. 25, which is now celebrated as Christmas in the western world. The children would traditionally put their shoes out at night and presents would be put in them by morning, but if they were bad they received sticks or stones.

The Dutch name for Saint Nicholas is Sinter Klaas. When the Dutch immigrated to America, the name Santa Claus originated in New York, or then New Amsterdam, because of the alike sound.

Many cultures around the world have different names for this figure. In England he is known as “Father Time”; to Swiss and German children he is “Kris Kringle.”

In Scandinavia, he is a jolly elf named “Jultomten” that delivers presents on a goat drawn sleigh. To the French he is “Pere Noel” and he fills the shoes of good French children. To Russians he is an elderly woman named “Babouschka,” who leaves gifts for children on Jan. 5. In Italy he is a woman named “La Befana,” who is a witch that rides a broomstick down chimneys to deliver toys, according to

Throughout history there have been tales of Santa with multiple helpers. His threatening partner “Krampus” would scare the children into being good. Some scary Germanic figures were “Ru-klaus” (Rough Nicholas), “Aschenklas” (Ashy Nicholas), “Pelznickel” (Furry Nicholas), and Krampus, according to National Geographic.

Krampus is the most well known scary Christmas figure. He is Santa’s sidekick and a Christmas devil that is half goat and half demon, who scares children into being nice by beating them with a chain or kidnapping children and taking them to his lair in the underworld. The eve before Dec. 6 is known as Krampusnacht (Krampus Night). European adults dress up as Krampus on Krampusnacht and run through the streets, scaring and chasing pedestrians.

Krampus originates from Austrian and German folklore and is popular in Hungary, Austria, Romania, Bavaria, Slovenia, Croatia and more European countries. Krampus has been on greeting cards since the 1800s and has always been known as Santa’s sidekick. After the protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, many such beliefs and traditions were banned, but in recent years, it has made a comeback. Stores are selling horns and Krampus merchandise, “American Dad” aired an episode in December 2014 called “Minstrel Krampus” where Steve was kidnapped by Krampus and taken to his lair. There is a new “Krampus” movie coming out in theaters Dec. 4. It is a horror movie that shows a family being stalked by Krampus, then slowly being picked off one by one. This movie is popularizing the figure more than ever.

In the 1820s, Christmas shopping began being advertised at stores and by the 1840s, newspapers had created holiday sections for advertisements and other holiday stories. Around this time was when life size models of Santa Claus were created and put in department stores; next came real life, dressed up Santas.

By the 1890s, the Salvation Army started the practice of dressed up Santas going around collecting money donations to pay for Christmas meals for the needy. They are still doing this today, although they are using Twitter, Facebook and they even have a text message donation program in order to raise more funds.

According to, the modern version of Santa Claus’ image is mostly due to two men, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast. Moore was a writer who wrote the 1823 poem for his three girls, “An account of a visit from Saint Nicholas” (otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In this poem he described Santa as being a “right jolly old elf ” and as having superhuman ability to deliver presents all over the world in one night and to go down chimneys.

Thomas Nash was a cartoonist who depicted Moore’s poem into art in Harper’s Weekly. He drew Santa as being a large cheerful man, with a large white beard, a sack full of toys, and a red suit and white trimmings. He also drew elves, the North Pole, and Mrs. Claus, according to

Now you can’t forget Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of all. Rudolph has been around since 1939. The Washington Post states that Robert L. May was asked to write a Christmas story for the Montgomery Ward department store. Well, we all know the story of how he saved Christmas because he lit the way for Santa’s sleigh through the fog. It sold millions of copies and was translated into 25 languages. It was made into a song written by May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks in 1949, and became a television movie in 1964. The original book “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is currently housed at the Smithsonian.

No matter where you’re from or what your culture is, a form of Christmas is celebrated all over the world. Since its beginning, Christmas has been a time for giving and good will.

Black Friday and the shopping rushes at Christmas are only part of what Christmas is about, but not what is important. Holidays are a time to be thankful for what you have and to help others in need like Saint Nick did, not to mention staying good so Krampus doesn’t have to come this year. 

Anna Ashcraft is The Arts Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at

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