For many children, the holidays summon visions of sugarplums and fanatical devotion to a magical old man with a sack of gifts. But there's a dark side to yuletide traditions -- a world of impish tricksters, supernatural kidnapping and demonic invasions. Welcome to the domain of Krampus!
As these early 20th-century Viennese postcards illustrate, Austrian holidays are steeped in dualistic intrigue. Sure, there's a kindly old gift giver in the form of St. Nicholas, but what's that horrible demon in his robes? That, my friend, is Krampus: the snake-tongued, switch-swinging embodiment of grim Christmas tidings. While St. Nick brings the good kiddies presents, Krampus brings the ne'er-do-wells a stout dose of terror.
Oh, make no mistake: Krampus and St. Nicholas are not archenemies. This isn't a Jesus/Satan or Batman/Joker scenario. No, for the children of Austria and other Alpine lands, Krampus and St. Nick represent two sides of the same holiday coin -- a good cop/bad cop if you will.
Here we see another pair of early 20th-century Viennese postcards, this time highlighting a little holiday kidnapping. That's right. Krampus doesn't just show up on your doorstep with switches and chains. In the case of particularly naughty children, he throws them in a basket and drags them away forever. If you think that sounds apocalyptic, you're catching on. "The Battle for Christmas" author Stephen Nissenbaum even likens Christmases like these to "a mini Day of Doom."
Krampusnacht occurs in early December. That's when Krampus hordes shamble down from the mountains, resulting in fiery, apocalyptic processions through city streets. While all in good fun, cases of "Krampus trauma" are not uncommon, and many processions number the costumed participants to keep everyone from crossing the thin line between good-natured holiday horror and emotional abuse.
Ah, here's one of the culprits now! A member of Koatlacker devil's association (Koatlacker Tuifl) takes part in a Krampus procession through the streets of Prad, Italy. While Krampus is commonly associated with Austria and southern Germany, the tradition is also strong in the South Tyrol region of northern Italy.
This German storefront offers just a small sampling of demonic holiday visages. Krampus masks range from generic devil hoods and modified gorilla masks to centuries-old relics.
A reveler in a highly crafted Krampus mask looks down on the streets of San Paolo, Italy.
For the children of the Alps, Krampus isn't purely a figure of terror. No, he's also a sugary treat, factoring into a whole host of traditional chocolates, cookies and breads.
No longer contained to a few lingering folk traditions, Krampus now roams free in global popular culture. Here we see a bit of Krampus street art in San Francisco's Chinatown.
For people unfamiliar with his evil ways, Krampus offers a darkly unique spin on Christmas traditions -- which is why you may have seen the horned holiday hellion on the likes of "Family Guy" and "The Colbert Report." Here, we see his clash with Brock Sampson on "The Venture Bros."
This modern take on Krampus comes from fantasy artist Gerald Brom. Known for his dark, seductive take on wizards, warriors and monsters, Brom also writes fiction. So it's only natural that his first foray into Christmas publishing would be 2012's "Krampus: The Yule Lord."
Born in Germany and raised in Texas, artist Marc Burckhardt brings Krampus to unique and colorful life in this terrifying painting.
American artist Noah Bradley bring you this delightfully creepy Krampus, resplendent with chains. Dare we guess what he'll slip into those stockings?
A particularly goaty Krampus carries off a pair of particularly awful children in this piece from artist Britt Martin.
Here, Australian artist Douglas Holgate explores both the terrifying and goofy aspects of the Krampus legend.
Polish-born Canadian artist Mikołaj Maciaszek gives us a tall glass of holiday nightmare fuel with his own riff on a visit from Krampus.
Maciaszek is no monster, though. Witness his far more heartwarming take on Krampus, seen here as part of a religious Christmas procession.
Chicago artist Melita "missmonster" Curphy is all about magical fury beasties, so it's no surprise that three of her Krampuses pop up in this gallery. Here's her take on the traditional " Gruß vom Krampus" (Greetings from Krampus) holiday card.
Here's another Krampus card from Curphy, once more with terrified children. This is what happens when you make the naughty list, kids!
Here's a sort of Krampus coat of arms featuring the hallmark horns, tongue, fur, chains, switches and traumatized children.
Who said Krampus can't be fashionable or even beautiful? Here we see an elegant she-Krampus at large in the woods. Does she spy naughty children in the distance?
And yes, Krampus has also taken to the stage -- and in HowStuffWorks' hometown no less. Here, the towering Germanic holiday demon appears in an Atlanta production of "The Krampus Xmas Spectacular" at 7 Stages.
Krampus tradition remains strong in Atlanta, too! Here we see Prof. Jas. M. Stacy's Krampus once more, this time leading Little Five Point's Official Annual Krampus Krawl in December 2012.
What's this? Another participant in Atlanta's 2012 Krampus Krawl carries off naughty children as the procession ambles from one bar to the next.
Ghastly and beautiful Krampuses alike invoke fear on the streets of Atlanta.
Jolie Simmons and local puppeteer/artist Chris Brown show off their Krampus stylings during Atlanta's 2012 Krawl.
Another she-Krampus dazzles bystanders during Little Five Point's Official Annual Krampus Krawl.
Finally, a street Krampus pushes his cart manically through the streets of Atlanta during the 2012 Krampus Krawl. Look closely, and you'll even see Stuff to Blow Your Mind co-host (and wrangler of this image gallery) Robert Lamb in the background.