Christmas isn’t simple. If you think you’ve got a handle on its melange of Christian, pagan, and national traditions, here’s one more wrinkle. In Austria and Hungary, and some parts of Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Northern Italy, a bleak myth describes what happens during the Christmas season to children who have misbehaved during the past year. According to legend, unruly kids are paid a visit by Krampus. Unlike St.
Nicholas, who brings gifts and treats, Krampus punishes and warns kids who need to straighten up.
The word Krampus derives from the Old High German word Krampen, which means “claw.” Other European traditions involve other unpleasant or grotesque sidekicks to Santa Claus, including Black Peter, Servant Rupert, and a devil and an angel. The ghastly depictions of this mythical creature usually feature a hairy man-beast with sharp horns and an even-sharper tongue that hangs wickedly from his mouth. He often is carrying rusty chains and a handful of birches for whipping. He has a sadistic smile. Some images of Krampus show him hauling away mischievous children in a basket on his back.
Traditionally, in early December young men would dress up as the demonic Krampus and take to the streets, terrifying children. Now, modern Krampus costumes usually include sheep’s skin, horns, and wooden masks called Larve.
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