Beware the Krampus!

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Here comes the Krampus!. Photo Credit: Matej Divizna/Getty Images News

A movie came out in December 2015 called Krampus, and I got a ton of messages asking about whether or not the scary creature in the title is a real thing. Well, if you live in Bavaria or some parts of Germany, absolutely! Let's take a look at the Krampus - and just as importantly, the huge annual celebration in his honor.

Beware the Krampus!

The word Krampus means "claw", and apparently certain Alpine villages have big parties featuring a scary clawed incubus who hangs around with Santa Claus.

The Krampus costume also includes sheepskin, horns, and a switch that the incubus uses to swat children and unsuspecting young ladies. The Krampus' job is to punish those who have been bad, while Santa rewards the people on his "nice" list.

There's been a resurgence in interest in Krampus over the past century or so, but it seems as though the custom goes back hundreds of years. Although the exact roots of Krampus aren't known, anthropologists generally agree that the legend probably derives from some sort of early horned god, who was then assimilated into the Christian devil figure. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, masked devils began appearing in church plays during traditional winter celebrations. These events, which often had some fairly comedic and ludicrous elements to them, became part of the pre-Christmas fun that takes place each year. Now, it seems that Krampus has taken on a life of his own - there are Krampus cards and ornaments, books and graphic novels, and of course, the film.

Krampus has actually become a pop culture mainstay, which is a bit odd, if you think about it.

Celebrating Krampusnacht

December 5 is the evening on which parts of Germany and Bavaria celebrate Krampusnacht, which is most likely a throwback to a pre-Christian tradition.

While the men parade around dressed as creepy demons, the women get to have some fun too, wearing masks and representing Frau Perchta, a Nordic figure that may have been an aspect of Freyja, the fertility and war goddess.

Interestingly, in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, there's a character called Pelsnickel or Belznickel who is an awful lot like Krampus, so it appears that the tradition migrated across the water when Germans settled in America.

Krampus.com, which calls itself the official home of "Krampus, the holiday devil," calls Krampus a "dark counterpart of Saint Nicholas, the traditional European gift-bringer who visits on his holy day of December 6th. The bishop-garbed St. Nicholas rewards good kids with gifts and treats; unlike the archetypal Santa, however, St. Nicholas never punishes naughty children, parceling out this task to a ghastly helper from below."

Ed Mazza at the Huffington Post says of a Krampus celebration in Czechoslovakia, "The Krampus costumes at the Kaplice parade were quite elaborate. Getty Images reported that they were often made of sheep or goat skin, and had large cowbells attached to the waist."

Today, Krampus has seen a resurgence in popularity in many places, and he's even become a bit of an iconic figure in the United States. There are a number of locations that have annual Krampus celebrations. In Columbus, Ohio, the Clintonville neighborhood saw their first Krampus parade in 2015, and organizers have already decided to make it a regular event.

Philadelphia and Seattle also hold Krampus parades during the beginning of December to celebrate this European tradition.