Why do the Austrians celebrate Christmas with a child-punishing goat-demon called Krampus?

2 December

Krampus is the counterpart to St Nicholas, a figure in European folklore who arrives on the 6 December and leaves presents in the shoes of all the good children. The bad children are punished by the Krampus, a half-goat half-devil figure who whips the children with bunches of birch twigs, and then, if they have been really bad, he hauls them off to the Underworld, where who knows what happens – certainly not anything that St Nicholas would want to contemplate.

He’s a familiar Christmas figure in Austria, Germany and other neighbouring countries. It’s thought that Krampus was originally the son of the Norse goddess Hel, who lived in the Underworld. The roots of the modern Krampus are firmly in pagan Europe, dating back at least 1,500 years. It’s thought that he was meant to frighten away winter ghosts, but his appearance bears a strong resemblance to the Devil. As a result, the Catholic church tried to ban Krampus during the 12th century but the tradition stuck, because people have always loved him, especially parents who liked the thought that they could terrify their children into good behaviour, a bit like British parents saying Father Christmas won’t give bring you any presents. To take the psychological view, he’s the shadow side of St Nicholas and he appeals to the part of us that loves to be scared.

Krampus has really caught on in North America, with a comedy-horror film bearing his name released last year. He’s clearly a fantastic commercial proposition and if he’s gone to Hollywood, he’s going to be over here sooner rather than later.

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