Although bold children in some parts of the world are afraid of what Santa might bring, at least they don’t have to deal with central Europe’s most feared Christmas Character: Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who beats children into being nice.
Krampus appears in many variations across Europe, but most share the same characteristics: he is hairy, usually brown or black, with cloven hooves and goat’s horns and a long tongue and fangs.
According to legend, Krampus appears in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. He visits houses, along with St. Nicholas, who visits children in countries such as Austria on the night before St. Nicholas’ Day to deliver presents (a reward for good behaviour). Krampus joins to deliver a rod if the child has behaved badly, and legend has it that throughout the Christmas season, misbehaved children are beaten with birch branches or can disappear, stuffed into Krampus’ sack and hauled off to his lair to be tortured or eaten.
A more modern tradition in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic sees drunk men dress up as devils, who take over the streets for a Krampuslauf—a Krampus parade of sorts, when they get chased through the streets by “devils.”
But the history of the Krampus figure has nothing to do with Christmas, and is thought to stretch back to Pre-Christian Alpine traditions, with some suggesting his origins are based on witchcraft and paganism. His name is derived from the German word krampen, meaning claw, and he is said to be the son of Hel in Norse mythology. Krampus also shares characteristics with other scary, demonic creatures in Greek mythology, including satyrs and fauns.
During the 12th century, the Catholic Church attempted to banish Krampus celebrations because of his resemblance to the devil. More attempts followed in 1934 at the hands of Austria’s conservative Christian Social Party, but they were unsuccesful and Krampus soon became a feared and beloved Christmas tradition.
Perhaps you might even catch the Krampus spirit yourself this year. After all, he could be watching you!