(RNN) – In the U.S., Santa has his elves, but in parts of Europe, he has a more sinister sidekick. His name is Krampus and he is the very antithesis of Santa Claus; a hairy, horned, long-tongued devil of a beast, whose job is to punish bad kids at Christmas time. Krampus is the perfect bad guy to Saint Nicholas' good guy.
The legend of Krampus, which predates Christianity, started in the Alpine region of Europe, specifically, the Austrian Alps. The Krampus tale gradually spread throughout Austria and into neighboring countries including Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, northern Italy and Croatia, according to the Czech website krampus-certi.cz.
Pagan in origin, Krampus was assimilated into the Catholic tradition sometime during the 1600s to accompany Saint Nicholas on his Dec. 6 feast day. According to catholicculture.org, the good saint and his crony would visit children and ask them how they behaved during the year. Good children were rewarded with presents, candy, and nuts. Naughty kids received lumps of coal, potatoes, switches, or nothing at all.
Krampus doesn't just wag his finger disapprovingly at bad kids. He is a terrifying dude who does not mess around when it comes to dealing with little troublemakers. He carries a basket on his back and is often depicted carrying chains, bells, and ruten (birch branches) for swatting children. Particularly naughty children are told that they will be stuffed in Krampus' basket and carried to Hell.
Traditionally, village men would dress up as Krampus and visit homes where small children lived in order to frighten them. After the kids had a good scare, their parents would invite Krampus in for a bit of kirsch or schnapps, according to the Morning News website. Eventually, that tradition evolved into today's Krampus festivals and Krampuslaufen (Krampus walks).
Although popular now, Krampus festivities were forbidden during different times in Austria's history. Most recently, The Austrian Times says, Krampus celebrations "were banned by Chancellor [Engelbert] Dollfuss after the Austrian Civil War" in 1934. But the legend of Krampus never really disappeared, and by the end of the century, the old devil's legend was revived.
In parts of Europe, Krampuslaufen and Krampus festivals often kick off the Christmas season. The German news magazine, Der Spiegel, describes Austria's popular Krampuslaufen as "a bit toned down and commercialized," when compared to the old traditions. However modern festivities sometimes devolve into a "bacchanal, where scaring kids takes a back seat to heroic bouts of drinking."
Krampus isn't as well-known in the United States as he is in Europe. However, he is gaining popularity, especially among those who have a little sympathy for the devil, or those who find Christmas just too wholesome. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, "some in the U.S. see him as an alternative to the overly commercial, cheer-filled version of Christmas." Over the past few years, Krampus celebrations have popped up in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Portland and Albuquerque.
Krampus also is making his way into American pop culture, showing up in various books, comic books and web comics. He's also made appearances on episodes of The Venture Brothers and The Colbert Report. He has a website and Wikipedia page dedicated to him. Krampus even has a folk-metal band named in his honor.
That popular little elf toy may spy on your kids for Santa, but you ought to consider having him report to Krampus as well. That would certainly give a new depth of meaning to the Santa Claus is Coming to Town lyric, "you better watch out."
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