An Austrian Christmas tradition that can sting
by Michael Karas, The Record, NorthJersey.com
A couple Americans experience the Austrian Krampus tradition
Standing in the darkness, we eagerly awaited the approaching horde. Snow fell in the tranquil, alpine town of Bad Mitterndorf, as the cracking of whips and clanging of bells began to fill the air. This was not our first encounter with the monstrous Krampus, but until this point we were merely onlookers to the menace caused by St. Nicholas’ evil companion. We had respect for Krampus, but we didn’t fear him. That was about to change.
During the first week of December, in certain parts of Austria, people dress as the folkloric, beast-like creature known as Krampus. The costumes differ in detail across the region but generally consist of fur, large horns, a demonic mask and a bundle of sticks used as a switch. The Krampusse prowl the streets, frightening, chasing and flogging whoever crosses their path. In contrast to St. Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts, Krampus punishes the wicked.
My girlfriend and I learned of Krampus from an Austrian friend who grew up celebrating the tradition in her hometown. She regaled us with tales of demons going door to door, sanctioned by St Nicholas to terrorize the wicked. To us it sounded like the incongruous combination of Halloween and Christmas, our favorite holidays. We were warned that Krampus was a malicious and violent character, but decided the chance to witness the tradition was too enticing to pass up.
The ghastly appearance of Krampus is enough to cause fear, but unlike the amateur ghouls and ghosts of a haunted house who must keep their spectral hands to themselves and rely solely on appearance to frighten, Krampus follows no such rules. While the intensity and focus of a Krampus in attack mode can be alarming, especially to tourists seeing it for the fist time, much of the perceived threat is posturing by the monster and no real harm is caused. Krampus will hit you, but he aims for the legs, and it only stings for a moment. The crowds of Austrians who turn out each year to revel in the Krampus spectacle can attest to that.
We first saw Krampus in Graz, a city with a beautiful historic section of narrow cobblestone streets and a clock tower perched high on a hill. The Krampus procession, known as Krampuslauf, consisted of hundreds of people in elaborate costume parading down a street decorated with Christmas trees hanging upside-down overhead. Almost all the Krampusse wore large cowbells that rang out violently as they threatened and battered the crowd.
Enthusiastic onlookers recklessly leaned over the barricades only to retreat back when a surly Krampus would charge, often while waving a switch or brandishing something that was on fire.
The hundreds of Krampusse were divided into small cadres by town or region. At times, they would march together, momentarily moving as one before fanning out to torment spectators.
Many of their masks featured glowing eyes and grotesque wounds, resembling something from a modern horror movie. While the majority of Krampusse seemed content to harass the crowd on foot, some rode in large carts or vehicles, shooting flames or bellowing smoke.
Standing behind the barricade, we initially felt safe, but these Krampusse were expert at their craft and were only mildly impeded by the barrier. We witnessed some fairly savage floggings of legs that left the victims in visible pain. Whenever a Krampus would approach, we’d recoil in terror, but luckily we managed to escape unscathed. On the walk back to our hotel, with cameras in hand, we decided that we had been given a pass because it was obvious to the Krampusse that we were enthusiastic tourists who had no idea what we were getting into.
We next visited Salzburg, where in the early evening the city center was packed with people enjoying a serene outdoor Christmas market. While others sipped hot drinks and soaked in the beauty of the surrounding Baroque architecture, we eagerly listened for the clang of the Krampus mob’s approach. Unlike our first encounter with the Krampusse, this time there were no barricades, nothing separating us, from the beasts.
When the Krampusse descended on the crowd, we saw people run and hide while others eagerly joined the melee. These Krampusse, who were accompanied by a St. Nicholas, were considerably more aggressive than those in Graz. They were particularly brutal to anyone who taunted them or tried to retaliate. A particularly large and frightening Krampus chased down an offending teenager, threw him on the ground and sat on his chest. The boy looked terrified and near tears at the time. But shortly after the Krampus let him go, he was joyfully telling his friends about his ordeal.
The narrow streets in the Old City section of Salzburg were packed with pedestrians as the Krampusse stomped through. Many people were caught unaware and reacted with terror. Some would flee and try to seek refuge in a shop or restaurant, only to be pursued by a determined Krampus. With so many easy targets, we again managed to escape largely unharmed. At times we were chased, jostled and struck, but compared with the brutality we witnessed, it was obvious we had been spared the full brunt of what Krampus could muster. The next night, when a Krampus group with a penchant for pitchforks and pyrotechnics plowed through the streets with a massive wooden cart, we were once again given a pass.
While our initial encounters with Krampus had been thrilling, we were eagerly awaiting our visit to Bad Mitterndorf, where St. Nicholas is traditionally accompanied by Krampus and several other costumed characters. On our walk to a bakery, where we bought Krampus-shaped bread with raisin eyes, we passed several large and foreboding Krampus masks made of fur and wood on display in shop windows.
In Bad Mitterndorf a St. Nicholas play, the Nikolospiel, has been performed for more than a century. After dark, costumed men perform the play five times, walking in character to each location. The plot includes a poor man who confesses his sins to a priest but does not regret his transgressions. The man refuses to become a better person and is killed by the character Death and dragged away by Krampusse.
Emboldened by our earlier, relatively painless Krampus encounters and a desire to keep moving in the cold, we left the group waiting for the performance and walked toward the approaching procession. As the troop of characters grew near, we noticed that unlike our previous encounters with Krampusse, there was not a large crowd with us along the route. We were on our own.
The first creatures to come into view resembled large straw brooms. Walking in single file, cracking whips and leading the pack were the Schaben, or roaches, with their long antennae reaching 15 feet in the air. Following close behind in costume, were the characters of the play, including St. Nicholas, a priest, a night watchman, an angel, a goat, a hunter and Death carrying a scythe.
Next came a wave of Krampusse, covered in fur, with wooden masks and bundles of sticks in hand. They walked with purpose, but some took notice of us standing alone in the dark and began to move in our direction. Fear began to take hold of us, but from what we saw in Graz and Salzburg running away only served to enrage Krampusse, ensuring that when you were caught the punishment would be severe. We stood completely still, as if while out hiking we stumbled upon a dangerous wild animal.
They began to growl as they approached and held their switches at the ready. We backed away slowly, but the Krampusse were soon upon us delivering a swift beating to our shins and thighs that left us reeling. The pain was severe, but when it faded, we were overtaken with the excitement of now, as victims, fully participating in the Krampus tradition.
Knowing that we could no longer mingle amongst the beasts with impunity, we gave the group a wider berth. Following at a distance, we scanned the darkness for approaching assailants and froze whenever we heard the ringing bells of a nearby Krampus.
Since standing motionless failed to work as a deterrent we tried running away at full speed. But despite our efforts to remain vigilant, we received countless thrashings, which grew ever more painful as the evening went on. We soon found ourselves cowering behind bushes and ducking for cover anytime a Krampus drifted near.
Upon hearing our pleas for mercy in poorly pronounced German, a persistent Krampus removed his mask to ask where we were from. Sensing our obvious enthusiasm for the Krampus tradition, he told us that his costume was over 80 years old and was something he wore with great pride, before politely excusing himself to chase down a passer-by.
Back in the safety of our guesthouse, under multiple layers of thermal pants and wool socks, we discovered a number of raised welts and small bruises on our legs—courtesy of Krampus. As we marveled at our ruptured blood vessels, it became painfully obvious that while we think of ourselves as “good” people, there was now overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The ability to be genuinely frightened of someone wearing a costume is often left behind in childhood, and as an adult it is a bizarre experience. Fleeing from a person wearing a wooden mask and brandishing a bundle of sticks is terrifying but also exhilarating. Despite the inevitable clobbering, I was so intrigued by the Krampus custom that I continually drifted within striking distance while taking pictures and reveled in the rare instance of a successful escape.
While being relentlessly pursued through the snow by a horned beast dead set on punishing the wicked may seem like an unorthodox path to embracing the holiday spirit, the lashings were an immediate catalyst for introspection, after which I found myself silently promising to become a better person in the new year.
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Text and photos by Michael Karas, staff writer, The Record and source NorthJersey.com, October 26, 2014. Used by permission.