Krampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish children during the Christmas season who had misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair.
Krampus is represented as a beast-like creature, generally demonic in appearance. The creature has roots in Germanic folklore. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus in Austria, Romania, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December (the eve of Saint Nicholas Day on many church calendars), and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten. There are many names for Krampus, as well as many regional variations in portrayal and celebration.
Krampus at Morzger Pass in Salzburg
The history of the Krampus figure has been theorized as stretching back to pre-Christian traditions. In a brief article discussing the figure, published in 1958, Maurice Bruce wrote:
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.
Discussing his observations while in Irdning, a small town in Styria in 1975, anthropologist John J. Honigmann wrote that:
The Saint Nicholas festival we are describing incorporates cultural elements widely distributed in Europe, in some cases going back to pre-Christian times. Nicholas himself became popular in Germany around the eleventh century. The feast dedicated to this patron of children is only one winter occasion in which children are the objects of special attention, others being Martinmas, the feast of the Holy Innocents, and New Year's Day. Masked devils acting boisterously and making nuisances of themselves are known in Germany since at least the sixteenth century while animal masked devils combining dreadful-comic (schauriglustig) antics appeared in Medieval church plays. A large literature, much of it by European folklorists, bears on these subjects. ... Austrians in the community we studied are quite aware of "heathen" elements being blended with Christian elements in the Saint Nicholas customs and in other traditional winter ceremonies. They believe Krampus derives from a pagan supernatural who was assimilated to the Christian devil.