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You better watch out: Krampus is coming to town

The Krampus storms through winter streets on hairy haunches, rattling chains and brandishing a bundle of birch sticks.

And if you've been naughty, he might just whisk you away in his sack.

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The mythological creature — a sort of anti-Claus — originated centuries ago in the Alpine region. But Krampus has never been more popular in this country than he is now, with events planned from Los Angeles to New York City.

In Baltimore, Krampus lovers plan to tear past the lights of Hampden's 34th Street in fur and horns Friday evening, sing Krampus carols at a Hampden curiosity shop and, after the children go home, quaff some beers.

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"When I found a Christmas character with fangs and fur who whips naughty children, I fell in love immediately," said Rob Hatch, who, with his wife, Nona, is planning Baltimore's Krampuslauf, or running of the Krampus.

Hatch, 52, who organizes the Baltimore 48 Hour Film Project, learned about the Krampus three years ago while researching holiday celebrations.

"I was looking for new ways to celebrate the winter holidays, hoping we could find something better than Black Friday," he said.

Philadelphia-based author Matt Lake, who recently published a book called "Night of the Krampus," believes the Krampus is a heady antidote to the consumerism of the holidays.

"It's a pendulum swing from the saccharine excesses of Christmas," said Lake.

The Krampus tradition traces its origins to 1600s Austria, where a horned figure would accompany a man dressed as St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, the saint's feast day.

While St. Nicholas would offer small gifts to good children, the Krampus would rattle chains and shake a bundle of birch switches to intimidate bad ones.

Krampus and St. Nicholas symbolize two sides of winter, said Peter Jelavich, a professor of European history at the Johns Hopkins University. St. Nicholas represents hope, while Krampus is imbued with the fears of the darkest time of year.

"The Krampus figure represents the horrors of winter in a small Alpine village," said Jelavich. "He represents the scariest part of winter."

These days, Krampus celebrations tend to be tongue-in-cheek, a chance to extend Halloween revelry.

"A lot of this is people who don't want to put their Halloween costumes away," said Earle Havens, also a Hopkins history professor.

"It's another version of Carnival and Mardi Gras. With the masks, your identity is hidden and you can get away with a lot of disorderly activity," Havens said.

Many Krampus celebrations in this country tend to be for adults only. There's a Krampus-themed burlesque show planned in San Francisco, a ball in Los Angeles and a boisterous party in New Orleans. Philadelphia has celebrated a more family-friendly Krampus party for the past several years.

Laura Knapp, a German teacher at City College, said her high school students love learning about the Krampus tradition.

"It's something completely different than what we talk about with our winter holiday season in the U.S.," she said. "It's kind of amusing for American students."

Aspects of the Krampus are drawn from ancient traditions.

The creature's devilish appearance — horns, hooves and long lolling tongue — is derived from portrayals of demons from medieval morality plays, said Havens.

The birch switches that the Krampus clutches hark back to the ancient practice of whipping men in initiation rituals, Havens said.

The Krampus reminded children that scary fates could befall them if they disobeyed their parents, or roamed too far into the bleak winter forests. In the 19th century, people sent postcards of the beastly creature whipping children or shoving them into his pack.

Similar traditions persist in other European countries. Devilish figures called Perchten roam parts of Austria. A less-menacing brown-robed man named "Knecht Ruprecht" accompanies St. Nicholas in some areas of Germany. And in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is joined by a brown-skinned figure known as "Black Peter" — a tradition that has sparked protests in recent years for its racist overtones.

Jelavich spent much of his childhood in Austria, where men dressed as the Krampus and St. Nicholas travel from house to house visiting children in early December.

Small village celebrations have grown into tourist spectacles that draw hundreds to resort towns to see parades of the Krampus figures, known as "Krampuslauf," Jelavich said.

Videos show scores of participants in fur and horns cavorting in the snow and scaring onlookers of all ages.

It is unclear why the Krampus has grown trendy in recent years.

Havens, the Hopkins professor, theorized that it was an expression of regionalism, a reaction to the homogenization of culture of the European Union. And, he noted, it's awfully fun.

"It's an excuse to dress up, get drunk and make asses of themselves in the freezing cold," he said.

While European Krampus celebrations traditionally occur around St. Nicholas' feast day or the night before, festivities in this country stretch throughout the month.

Last Friday, a Krampus-themed black metal party was held at the Sidebar in Downtown Baltimore. Concert organizer Mary Spiro said the subversiveness of the Krampus appeals to metal fans.

But the city's main Krampus event will be held Friday evening in Hampden. It is jointly organized by the Hatches and Bazaar, a curiosity shop at Chestnut Avenue and 36th Street. Scores of people have said they will attend.

Costumed participants will brandish their horns and rattle their chains along the shops on The Avenue and the lights of 34th Street.

The Hatches said their 6-year-old son, Freeman, was a little scared of the Krampus at first but now realizes it is all in fun, said Nona Hatch.

"He understands that Santa is real and Krampus is not," she said, adding that her son likes to belt out Krampus carols from Lake's book. "He likes the spookier side of things."

Nona Hatch, 46, makes costumes for Baltimore's annual Fluid Movement water ballet, so she had plenty of fur around to fashion Krampus costumes for the family for last year's Krampus celebration in Philadelphia. She also makes Krampus dolls that she sells online.

Lake plans to attend Friday's Krampuslauf. He'll sign copies of his book at Bazaar, lead Krampus carols and read poems for children that he has written about the Krampus.

Lake said he'll be easy to spot in his Krampus costume.

"I'll be the one with the prosthetic tongue," he said.

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If you go

People will gather at 5:30 p.m. Friday at De Kleine Duivel, a Belgian beer bar in Hampden at 3602 Hickory Ave., for a family-friendly running of the Krampus on 34th Street and The Avenue. A party will follow at 7 p.m. at Bazaar at Chestnut Avenue and 36th Street, followed by a second Krampus parade at 9 p.m. that will end at Rocket to Venus, 3360 Chestnut Ave.

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