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Krampus: The terrifyingly true dark side of Santa Claus

Way before Rudolph, Saint Nick had another sidekick...and he was very, very naughty.

Leslie Gornstein
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1 of 15 Michaela Rehle/Reuters/Corbis

The scary side of Christmas

A new film is hitting theaters this season: "Krampus," a tale of a deadly holiday spirit who cares nothing for your milk and cookies. The Krampus creature has its roots in very real traditions -- traditions that view Christmas as, yes, something to be celebrated...but also feared.

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2 of 15 Public domain

Jingle hells

Way before Jesus Christ and his December birthday bash, Bavarian folklore told of a horned devil or god who terrorized villages during the snowy season, punishing and judging wayward brats.

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3 of 15 Michaela Rehle/Reuters/Corbis

A horned devil for Christmas

His name: Krampus, an Old High German word for claw, or krampen.

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4 of 15 Rykoff Collection/Corbis

He knows when you've been naughty

This photo is old, but to this day, cities and rural areas in parts of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and northeastern Italy still consider Krampus a living -- and disturbing -- part of their holiday traditions.

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5 of 15 Michaela Rehle/Reuters/Corbis

Lock your doors

Traditions hold that, during the first two weeks of December, young men dress up as the Krampus, roaming the streets and frightening children with rusty chains, whips and bells.

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6 of 15 Austrian Archives/Corbis

Pagan origins

Krampus originally appeared carrying a birch staff, a pagan phallic symbol that also came in handy for beating naughty kids. Historian Maurice Bruce has speculated that the stick "may have a connection with the initiation rites of certain witch-covens; rites which entailed binding and scourging as a form of mock-death."

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7 of 15 Michaela Rehle/Reuters/Corbis

Early elves?

The Krampus figure also is believed to spring from stories of house spirits, such as kobolds or elves.

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8 of 15 Leonhard Foeger/Reuters/Corbis

Claws and chains

The rattling of chains may have come along later, "in a Christian attempt to 'bind the Devil,' but again, they could be a remnant of pagan initiation rites," Bruce speculates.

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9 of 15 Austrian Archives/CORBIS

Watch your tongue, too

Along with the birch branch, horns, chains and claws, here's another way to know you're dealing with an authentic Krampus: A long, lolling, practically prehensile, tongue.

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Kinder, gotten

Krampus was also known for lugging baskets, barrels, sacks or even washtubs...

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Krampus in action

...all the better to spirit children away, presumably to hell -- or to Krampus's dinner table.

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The notion of terrifying or kidnapping children comes, in part, from the white slave trade that flourished during Medieval times; North African corsairs raided European coasts to abduct people in slavery.

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13 of 15 David W. CernyReuters/Corbis

Devil's run

Some European, and even American, towns host annual Krampuslaufs, or "Krampus Runs," involving hundreds of celebrants.

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14 of 15 © Puku/Grand Tour/Corbis, Grand Tour Collection

In Alpine towns, revelers dress as the wicked beast in a celebration often fueled by fire...and good old-fashioned alcohol.

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15 of 15 Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters/Corbis

Forget milk and cookies

Santa may prefer milk and cookies, but the traditional Krampus likes alcohol -- the hard kind. The proper offering for Krampus in Europe? Schnapps.

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