What Is The Krampus?
Most of the figures you see around the Christmas holiday are familiar. There's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with his brightly glowing proboscis, legions of elves in their green tunics and pointy ears, and plenty of jolly men in red suits ringing bells and ho-ho-hoing. But there's one personage that lurks along the edges of the holiday, casting a shadow over the cheer of the day. A hulking, shaggy figure with cloven hooves, filthy, clawed hands, glowing red eyes, and a bloody sack of chains over his shoulder.
This is the Krampus.
Krampus, for those who have never heard the name before, is the Christmas demon (for more on the difference between devils and demons check out this article). A relic of the old world, the Krampus represents a time when the punishment for being a naughty child was a lot worse than a lump of coal in your stocking. In the long ago and far away bad children would be clapped in irons and thrown in the Krampus's sack, and taken down below for a hellfire and brimstone work study until they'd learned their lesson at the devil's own fires. With branded hoofprints in the snow around one's home, there were bigger worries on Christmas Eve than whether or not you got the toys you'd asked for.
Where Did He Come From...?
The Krampus has a long and storied history as part of Christmas and the holiday season. Before Christmas became the booming song and dance number celebrating consumerism and capitalism it was just one of a dozen other Christian holidays called St. Nicholas' Day. The day was overseen by Saint Nicholas, a tall old man with a long white beard, white robes, a bishop's hat, and a big shepherd's crook. You've probably seen some images of this pre-Santa figure. Saint Nicholas would go from house to house, blessing the good children and leaving them small presents before he moved on.
The Krampus came along about 50 feet behind the saint, drooling and snarling as he threatened to take the bad children down to the hot place. Parents would intervene, and the Krampus would give them a year to straighten up or he'd come back for them. He'd then trod off to the next house to go through the same ritual. In short the big K was the yang to the saint's yin, offering punishment where the saint offered reward.
These rituals have gone on for hundreds of years, and they still go on in many places in Europe as well as a few locations in America. Krampusnacht (a celebration of the wild man where adults dress in costume and get drunk for the raucous celebration before St. Nicholas' Day) is still celebrated in Austria, parts of Germany, and it's catching on in locations in Scandinavia as well. The Krampusnacht celebration is actually older than Christianity, as are the costumes people wear. Old Man Winter was a common costume, but so was the goat-legged forest spirit that just so happens to look like the modern-day devil. While Winter became Saint Nicholas, the goat man picked up his sack and started offering season's beatings to the naughty girls and boys.
In a nut shell that's who the Krampus is, where he comes from, and what his job is when the holiday season is upon us.