- On cold, dark winter nights, you might catch a glimpse of a horned figure stalking through the streets, with a basket strapped to its back and a switch in hand, the demonic Krampus isn't interested in giving out gifts, but doling out brutal punishments.
Krampus is the dark foil to Saint Nicholas, the miraculous Catholic bishop credited with bringing small gifts of sweets, nuts, and fruit to good little boys and girls in early December.
And yes, one of the inspirations behind jolly old you know who.
But what are the origins of the demonic horned creature?
You might be surprised to learn this winter monster isn't as old as you might have been led to believe.
And even more importantly, why invent a Yuletide character that literally beats children into submission?
(dramatic music) I'm Dr. Emily Zarca, and this is "Monstrum."
The Krampus's historical origins are generally believed to have emerged onto the Yuletide scene in Slavic and Austrian celebrations.
Winter festivals in the Alpine regions of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Germany, and Italy all feature versions of this monstrous anti-Santa.
Though originally Krampus was really more of a category of monster rather than the name of an individual creature.
The word itself comes from either the middle German for claw or the Bavarian word for something lifeless and dried out, with plenty of regional variations.
Half goat, half demon Krampus are fanged with cloven feet and often long pointed tongues.
The oldest and most traditional versions have multiple sets of horns.
They may carry a pitchfork and a basket to collect children in, and they always have that switch in their hand, most often one made of birch branches.
The better to beat you with, my dear.
Yup, that's what this charming monster does, doles out corporal punishment to children who misbehave.
Krampus emerged in Alpine folklore alongside celebrations of St. Nicholas.
At first, it was more of an idea, an amorphous, threatening boogeyman parents evoked to keep kids in line when food was scarce and attention wavered during the long dark nights of winter in the mountains.
Nice children received presence from St. Nick.
Naughty children received a birch branch spanking from Krampus, or worse.
The most wickedly-behaved were shackled and tossed into the monster's wooden basket to be carried away to the fires of hell, or, you know, eaten by the Krampus.
The traditions connecting Krampus and St. Nicholas seem interwoven through time, despite some conflicting versions of how they came to be associated.
There's evidence of performances that link the Krampus to Satan in Jesuit theater, and the monster frequently appears in Saint Nicholas plays.
So it is possible that the beast was constructed to represent the opposite of divinity.
Detailed descriptions of Krampus only emerge in the 19th century, when folklorists began recording the costumes worn during Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run.
In the Alpine region, December 5th marks a celebratory, and usually drunken, parade in which people dressed as Krampus walk through the streets, scaring bystanders and chasing down the really unlucky ones.
Even if people dressed as Krampus don't actually injure people, they are a symbolic threat of violence and rebellion against decorum.
In some regions, Krampus troops stalk the streets from November to Christmas.
These troops consist of multiple revelers, and it's considered an honor, and often a rite of passage, to don the horns.
In the oldest traditions of the Alpine region, Krampus revelers would either blacken their faces, don a dark false beard, and dress in dark clothing, or they wore wooden masks and long fur coats, sporting belts with large bells and that switch in their hand, of course.
In Catholic areas where fear of the devil was stronger, the costume included horns to highlight their evil nature.
Krampus masks are often called Larven, from the Latin word larva that means both mask and ghost.
Traditional masks are grotesque, with exaggerated features and gaping mouths, accented by massive animal horns, usually multiple pairs from different animals.
The woodcarvers who craft these masks are considered well-respected masters.
Also in the mid-19th century, the monster became associated with Santa Claus, the more secular version of Saint Nicholas.
Around this time is also where we see the moniker Krampus enter.
In 1862, a newspaper in Budapest was published under Krampus's name, and in 1865, it published an image of Santa Claus with Krampus lurking behind him, solidifying the creature's appearance and transferring the connection to the Christian holiday of Christmas rather than the holy saint's feast day.
Claims that Krampus is derived from pagan traditions intending to drive away winter and evil spirits in an ancient fertility rite are unfounded.
In reality, there is no evidence for this.
Scholars found that the false pagan origin story of Krampus was invented in the early 20th century by socialist folklorists attempting to cast Christianity as a practice that sullied ancient Nordic customs.
the Nazi party reinforced this false claim, publishing a photo essay portraying the Krampus as an ancient custom "banned for its pagan roots."
In reality, Krampus nights weren't recorded until 1582 in the Bavarian town of Decen, in passing reference under the name Percht.
The Perchtin are mischievous Alpine spirits and the likely folkloric precursors to the Krampus.
Documents from the 17th and 18th centuries show Salzburg archbishops trying to ban the Krampus tradition, with little success.
Interestingly, these bans were not about the monster itself, but were aimed at curbing the raucous celebrations that accompanied them.
In the 19th century, the Krampuslauf tradition dwindled, preserved only in a small number of Austrian and German towns until the 1870s as consumerism boomed.
More specifically, red postcards with illustrations of the monster appeared in Austria-Hungary in the later half of the century.
Austria's postal system became the first to deliver postcards in 1867, making the sending of Krampus cards in the late 1880s possible and financially viable.
The cards became incredibly popular.
A nostologic reminder for Austrians and Germans who moved from rural areas where Krampus runs were popular to industrialize cities.
Unsurprisingly, these postcards often show the horned monster punishing children, or, in a seemingly bizarre twist, accompanied by semi-naked women.
Perhaps because of these associations with both youth and sexuality, in some parts of Austria, children are told that being hit with Krampus's switch brings fertility.
While globally Krampus's popularity suffered from the early 20th century associations with socialism and the Nazi Party, in the latter part of the century, the demonic figure has made a comeback.
Since the turn of the 21st century, Krampus events have become larger and more numerous across the globe.
Whether this is due to her renewed interest in preserving traditional regional customs as globalization emerges, or a rebellious response to the over-commodification and commercialization of Christmas, the death metal version of Santa is making a play to take back the winter holidays.
The internet's discovery of the 19th century Krampus cards brought renewed interest to the monster.
In 2012, an episode of the "Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated" cartoon focused on Krampus, and that same year, Gerald Brom's book, "Krampus the Yule Lord," further increased the popularity of the monster, and connected him to a false backstory in Nordic mythology and made him an enemy of Santa Claus.
Movies, books, and other popular culture texts in America have perpetuated the connection between Santa and Krampus.
Horror films featuring the Krampus emerged around 2010, and the monster has been a staple ever since.
The 2015 film "Krampus" plays on the Santa Claus-Krampus connection explicitly, with Krampus coming down chimneys wearing a red fur-trimmed coat and slaughtering people.
Commercialism, morbid fascination, reclamation.
Whatever draws people to Krampus allows tradition to be shared and preserved.
In 2014, UNESCO even declared the Krampus play of the town of and Oblarn in Styria as vital to the cultural heritage of humanity, which proves to me that it's not only the good guys that get immortalized, the monsters get their place in history too.
So this winter holiday season, don't forget to play nice, boys and girls, or you might get a visit from this Yuletide monster.