You Better Watch Out, Krampus is Coming To Town

Justin Steinmetz  ·  7 / 6 / 2018

The Christmas markets in Austria have deservedly earned their reputation as being some of the most beautiful in Central Europe. Baroque and Gothic architecture glow cheerfully in the festive lights, while homemade Christmas decorations and other arts and crafts are on display in quaint wooden stalls, often with designers creating new items on the spot. Cinnamon and other spices waft fragrantly through the frosty air from the varieties of hot Punsch and Glühwein (punch and mulled wine) on offer. People enjoy strolling around, browsing the stalls and taking in the Christmas spirit - along with roasted almonds and chestnuts, not to mention all the different sausages from the Würstelstand. However, if you find yourself enjoying such delights the evening of December 5th, you best be prepared for this delightful festive ambience to be shattered by the boisterous arrival of scores of nightmarish, shaggy-haired, demonic-looking creatures with fearsome horns, shaking bundles of birch sticks and rattling chains; for the night before Nikolaustag, or Saint Nicholas’ Day, is Krampusnacht: Krampus Night!

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Saint Nicholas is quite a recognizable figure, given that the American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas both derive from him. Sankt Nikolaus is a jolly looking man with silver white hair and a long white beard, dressed in the red and gold vestments of a bishop while carrying a long ceremonial staff. Saint Nick loves well-behaved children and puts small gifts and sweets in their boots on the morning of December 6th. Naughty children, however, have to deal with St. Nick’s terrifying companion, the much less familiar figure of Krampus, a hellish beast who exists simply to scare these children straight. Krampuses have thick furry bodies, obscenely long curly goat horns, cloven hooves, bulging eyes, ugly fangs and long, whip-like tongues; a look most befitting a half-goat, half-demon from Hell. Legend has it that if you’ve been a naughty child, Krampus will come to your home and drag you off to his underworld lair, possibly to be tortured or eaten.

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The origins of Krampus actually have nothing to do with Christmas, but date back to pre-Germanic paganism in the Alpine region. His name comes from the German word krampen, which means ‘claw’; tradition has it that he is the son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel. During the 12th century, the Catholic Church tried to ban Krampus celebrations because of his similarity to the devil. Austria’s conservative Christian Social Party also attempted to ban such festivities in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the government even distributed pamphlets titled, “Krampus is an Evil Man” - but you can’t keep a good devil down, it seems, and the Krampus remains a much-feared and beloved holiday tradition today, as it has been for centuries. The tradition spread throughout countries of the former Habsburg Empire and so there are versions of the Krampus in Bavaria, Northern Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and also the Czech Republic.

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Europeans have been exchanging Krampus greeting cards since the 1800s, adorned with messages such as Gruß vom Krampus (Greetings from Krampus) and featuring scary images of the Krampus beating children or putting them in sacks or even sometimes bawdier ones with sexual overtones, with the Krampus kidnapping buxom women. There are Krampus postcards and even Krampus chocolates. It can be somewhat disconcerting for those more used to seeing Santa Claus chocolate figures to come across these devilish chocolates!

Krampus Night is celebrated across Austria as hundreds of revelers dressed up in ornate costumes parade through towns, carrying chains accompanied by bells and wielding birch sticks bundled in a broom-like fashion in order to whip people with. People also dress up as Perchten, evil spirits associated with Midwinter and the souls of the dead; a tradition that originated in the Tyrol region of Austria. Some places feature Krampus - und Perchtenläufe – Krampus and Percht Runs – and scores of young men and women don goat or sheep skin suits, strap animal horns to their heads and hand carved masks – or modern outfits consisting of latex masks and fake fur – grab hand-crafted weapons and make a schnapps-fueled run through Alpine towns scaring the bejeezus out of people and sometimes even beating them with the birch branches. What better way to kick off the holiday season than to be terrified out of your wits as you’re chased by hundreds of hairy demons through a gorgeous medieval town?  

Maybe next year you’ll be good, for goodness’ sake!

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