Santa's all well and good, but darker things have always lurked in Austria's woods. Take the Krampus, a towering, hairy creature with a long, long tongue, goat's head and horns and cloven feet. Krampus is no dancing Greek satyr. Instead, he roams rural Austria clad in chains and carrying a stick, terrifying misbehaving children on Dec. 5, the night before St. Nicholas' Day.
Depending on who you believe, Krampus is very old indeed. Some say the tradition stems back to the pre-Christian era, and that the Krampus known and feared by Austrians today is a version of an ancient god incorporated into Christian holidays.
There's no doubt that today the frightening figure is an integral part of Christmas celebrations in some parts of Austria and Hungary (where the local version is spelled Krampusz). Krampus brings punishment back to the Christmas holiday, threatening naughty children with more than a lump of coal in their stocking.
The modern tradition goes something like this: On Dec. 5, the day before St. Nicholas arrives with his sack of gifts, local men dress up in goat and sheep skins, wearing elaborate hand-carved masks. They make the rounds of village houses with children. When the kids open the door, they're frightened by Krampus-clad men waving switches at them and ringing loud cowbells. In some towns, kids are made to run a Krampus-gauntlet, dodging swats from tree branches.
Krampus gets his name from "Krampen," the old German word for claw. The ceremony was widely practiced until the Inquisition, when impersonating a devil was punishable by death. In remote mountain towns the tradition survived in violation of the church's edicts. In the 17th century Krampus made a comeback as part of the Christmas celebrations, paired with St. Nicholas as the jolly fellow's dark alter ego.
In the mid-1950s, well-meaning educators feared that the frightening apparition might scar children for life. One anti-Krampus pamphlet distributed in Vienna was earnestly entitled "Krampus is an Evil Man." As with most old traditions, Krampus has been somewhat commercialized and toned down. Today the tradition often devolves into a mid-winter bacchanal, where scaring kids takes a back seat to heroic bouts of drinking. The town of Schladminger is home to a sort of Krampus convention, with more than a thousand goat-men roaming the town's streets, harassing the town's young women.