Imagine being a child and having your elders tell you about a tall, dark creature with horns and a tail, ready to throw you in a sack and carry you off if you misbehaved. While it sounds outrageous to many, it's a vital part of many Christmas traditions in much of Europe.
Until recent years, few people in the United States were familiar with Krampus, but this devilish figure is quickly becoming a part of pop culture and this year he even stars in his own "holiday" movie.
The origins of Krampus are pre-Christian and the traditions seem to come primarily from Alpine folklore. Many scholars believe he originated with Germanic pagan traditions so there is some disagreement as to his true roots.
Writing about the figure in 1958, Author Maurice Bruce states:
"There seems to be little doubt as to his true identity for, in no other form is the full regalia of the Horned God of the Witches so well preserved. The birch—apart from its phallic significance—may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death. The chains could have been introduced in a Christian attempt to 'bind the Devil' but again they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites."
Whatever his true origins, Krampus essentially became an anti-Santa. In many regions, he arrives on his own on December 5th to punish and cart away any children who behaved poorly over the previous year. He is usually depicted with a basket or bag slung over his shoulder, his way of carting off naughty children. In some traditions, he shows up to present a bag of switches to the parents of unruly kids. A reminder of his existence and a warning to the children to change their ways.
Numerous areas in Europe still have Krampus festivals. Parades feature young men in Krampus costumes marching through the streets and there is even an annual "Krampus run" featuring people in costumes rushing through the streets.
No doubt, people in years past used portions of the Krampus myth as an iconic boogeyman to try to scare children into acting more proper.
Throughout the years, Krampus has been featured in European festivals, art and even Christmas cards. Now, in 2015, aside from hitting the big screen, he can be found on t-shirts, posters, cards and endless other products. Like it or not, this sinister Christmas figure is becoming firmly planted in the modern mind.