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Where did Krampus come from?

Krampus: Through the Streets, Through the Ages
Krampus shows up for an 1820 Viennese Christmas party, as commemorated in the Baumann family album.
Krampus shows up for an 1820 Viennese Christmas party, as commemorated in the Baumann family album.
Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

Krampus' exact origins are just as uncharted as the uncivilized wilds from which he emerges every Dec. 5.

Saint Nicholas, that solemn Catholic precursor to jolly old Santa Claus, first gained popularity among German-speaking people during the 11th century. Krampus became part of the festivities over the centuries to follow, but he undoubtedly dated back to pre-Christian customs surrounding the pagan goddess Perchta and her consort of frightening and unruly Schiachperchten.

These customs never vanished, and eventually rebounded. By the 16th century, pagan Schiachperchten processions became a frequent part of winter festivities in Salzburg, Austria, despite centuries of Christian traditions. Catholic attempts to ban these festivals in the 17th and 18th centuries proved futile, so a demonic he-goat earned his tenure in Alpine holiday traditions.

In Alpine celebrations, Krampus and Saint Nick come to life through the use of costumes and wooden masks, but you can guess which role is more popular. Fur-clad goat-men tend to parade through the streets en masse every Krampusnacht. They rattle their chains, brandish torches and leap about with wild, indiscriminate energy.

As with many masked rituals and celebrations around the world, the rites of Krampusnacht are transformative. They allow participants to abandon the conventions of daily life and indulge a wilder and perhaps darker aspect of their personality [source: Honigmann]. As such, it's easy for things to get a little out of hand. Many processions number the costumed participants to keep everyone from crossing the thin line between good-natured holiday horror and emotional abuse.

Back in 2006, concerned parents and Austrian child psychologist Max Friedrich spoke out against the demon's violent influence, as well as so-called childhood "Krampus trauma." What made the situation particularly interesting was that while Santa was banned from visiting kindergartens in Vienna, Krampus apparently still had access to the kiddies [source: Zawadil]. In 2015, amid the massive influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into rural Austria, community representatives made special efforts to prepare newcomers — especially children — for their frighteningly fun holiday festivities [source: Eckardt].

In the past, Krampus detractors have even outlawed the demon outright. Before Nazi Germany's 1938 invasion of Austria, Catholic Austrofascists briefly held power and, as reported in a 1945 New York Times article, they saw Krampus as a demonic, unruly and potentially communist usurper of Christian tradition. Krampus postcards and candies have always been popular, but at the time Krampus had virtually usurped the role of prime gift giver. It was the demon, not the Saint Nick, who made the rounds with sweets and gifts.

The Austrofascists ordered anyone in a Krampus costume arrested on sight. They even required that all Saint Nicks be licensed by the state — and monitored.

Despite the continuing war on Krampus and any misgivings we might have about scaring good behavior into children with the threat of inhuman kidnapping, the tradition not only endures but flourishes. Internet culture and the rejection of homogenized holiday traditions have led to a full-blown, international Krampus revolution.

Will he usurp the Christmas throne once more? Just in case, let's dig a little deeper into how we might explain where his goatlike, prehensile-tongued physiology came from.

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