In Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, and parts of eastern Europe, December 5th, is the time of the Kramostag-the festival of Krampus. Today, many towns in these areas hold festivities where people dress up and parade through the crowd as Krampus, a half goat, half demon. This modern festival has ancient origins and dates from a time when it was customary for men to dress in frightening costumes, moving from house to house, demanding alcohol from householders- or else a terrible retribution, emulating Krampus himself.
Krampus’ name derives from the mid-high German term for ‘Claw ‘ suggesting this Christmas demon gained his name sometime between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. He is best summarized in character as the anti-father Christmas, a frightening devil-like figure who punishes those children who misbehave, beating them or carrying them away for drowning, consumption or hell itself in a basket on his back. While Krampus disposes of the bad, Santa Claus or rather St. Nicholas himself, reward the good. This odd couple forms a team- but they work separately: St Nicholas on December 6th and Krampus the day before.
However, the concept of Krampus is much older than his name, which he was awarded when his association with St Nicholas began. Like Frau Perchta, many of his emblems, such as the oxtails and bundles of branches which he carries to switch naughty children are pagan in origin. In the twelfth century, the Catholic church tried to ban the Krampus celebrations because Krampus looked too much like the devil- and in some legends was the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld. However, his celebrations were hard to suppress. So a compromise was reached, and the son of Hel became the companion of a Saint.
In the early twentieth century, Austria’s Christian socialist party also tried to stamp Krampus out- with a similar lack of success. And so, Krampus continues to survive But as winters’ threat has diminished in modern times, so has the danger of Krampus. His frightening aspects are now watered down, and he appears on Austrian Christmas cards in a slightly kitsch or comical way. Instead of carrying children off to hell in his basket, or even beating them, he is likely just to give them a lump of coal.