The time of the Krampus is almost upon us! The eve of December 5th, known as Krampusnacht in some regions of the world, sees the arrival of a holiday figure meant to instill fear and nightmares for those who have not behaved as they should. A figure characterized by a long tongue, sharp teeth, curved horns, and hooved feet. Krampus is covered in furs, carrying bells, a bag or basket to steal away children, and disciplinary instruments in the form of chains or birch sticks. In Austria, the Krampus is sent the night before the Feast of St. Nikolaus to gather the ‘bad’ children, beating them and/or throwing them in his sack to take them away from their family and back with him.
Stories from Austria
As someone not raised in this tradition, it is both intriguing and terrifying to think of how the holiday season would be different if I had been raised with the belief that the Krampus was a possible visitor. According to a friend who was raised in Austria, those who did not grow up with it find it fascinating, but for those growing up with true belief in the Krampus, it is a
traumatic part of their childhood. I can agree with this assessment, because, as an American who did not hear of this tradition until I reached adulthood, I find it absolutely fascinating—and a welcome way to continue a Halloween-like approach to Christmas. After all, I never lose the Halloween spirit, regardless of time of year. Perhaps my life would be much different if I had been told a devil-like creature could take me away if I did not behave.
Always game for personal stories, I sent a barrage of questions to a dear friend asking about her childhood experiences with the Krampus. She explained that in her region of Austria, every child grew up with the story that St. Nikolaus will visit on the 6th of December, bringing chocolates and sweets for the good kids while Krampus shows up the night before with a birch stick to beat the bad children and a basket to take them away. In her village, teenage boys would get drunk, dress up as Krampus in furs, masks, and bells, and go from house to house, knocking on doors and chasing young children through the village with chains and birch sticks. She has a very vivid (read: traumatizing) memory of Krampus coming into her home, chasing her around until she was screaming and sobbing, hiding in fear under the kitchen table. It wasn’t until much later that she was told it was only her cousin. 1
Krampuslaufs and the Performers
Episode 98 of Into the Fray Radio consists of an interview with author, Chris Kullstroem, who wrote Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World. 5 In this book, Kullstroem outlines her yearlong trek across eleven countries to locate and experience scare tourism in various cultures. One of the most intriguing chapters covers her time attending multiple laufs while in Austria. 6 Not only does she cover the whippings she received at the hands of various Krampuses (a badge of honor, really), but also she discusses the differences in the costumes based on from which region each troupe hails. 7
My favorite aspect of Kullstroem’s Krampus chapter is when she interviews Clemens, a man who has played Krampus since he was 8 years old. 8 Clemens, who has a master’s degree in psychological marketing, offers his thoughts on why people wish to attend such an event that could result in bodily injury:
“People want limits,” he said. “Especially young people. They don’t get that in today’s society. But young people want discipline in a controlled, safe environment—from a beast, though, not a human being. A lot of people come to the laufs not because of the costumes but to get beaten….I hold the guy in the left hand and punish him with the horse tail. Full power….And he’s very proud of the wounds. This is a game. This is a cultural game.” 9
In Al Ridenour’s book, The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, it is noted that many of the lauf participants stick to familiar faces within the crowd when it comes to intimidating or whipping anyone, although that isn’t always the case. “Reading the crowd” seems to be a necessary trait while portraying Krampus. It is also noted that, at least in Dorfgastein, there is a trend for teenage boys to be the spectators most likely to taunt Krampus in an attempt to show off to their peers until they are old enough to portray Krampus themselves. 10
Dangers to Spectators and Krampus
Of course, it is easy to understand how this kind of tradition can quickly get out of hand, particularly when alcohol is involved. An article from a few years ago details the assault of five teenagers by ‘a group of out of control Krampus’ during a Krampuslauf in Salzburg, Austria which ultimately ended in some of the children being hospitalized. 11
This isn’t to say that there isn’t inherent danger for those portraying Krampus. Ridenour notes that alcohol consumption can cause particularly brazen spectators to attack Krampus, ripping at the horns, causing neck injuries for the actor. Platform shoes worn to create height, coupled with limited visibility within the masks can also create a dangerous situation for Krampus and those nearby. There are other risks that accompany the use of fire and pyrotechnics, naturally. 12
This American’s Perspective
It would be nearly impossible for me to not be enraptured by this tradition in all of its forms. Since I was not raised with the fear of Krampus and live most of my days longing for hints of the creepy and weird that are usually only largely acceptable during the Halloween season. As such, when my children came home from school a couple of years ago proudly explaining how they learned of the Feast of St. Nicholas, I told them that they can’t fully understand that aspect without Krampus. We spent time watching Krampuslaufs on YouTube, and we now proudly own a (lightweight) Krampus mask, which my children love to wear (at all times of the year, haha!).
I hope you enjoy this time of the year…and remember: Behave or Krampus may stop by for a visit!
Until next time!
Additional links not covered above
Here is a video of the Salzkammergut 2018 Krampuslauf: https://youtu.be/dBsIZ8MBg_0
Also, we cannot forget the wonderful Mister Sam Shearon’s Creepy Christmas (A Merry Macabre Coloring Book)
You can find Drawn to the Dark here.
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas can be found here.
1 My friend recommended the following video to me, which I am now sharing with you: Christoph Waltz, a German-Austrian actor/director, eloquently explains the Austrian tradition of Krampus to Jimmy Fallon.
3 Despite the thought that Krampus is a child of Loki, this is a wholly untrue thought. Ridenour, Al. The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil. 10. 4 In an interesting take on continuing the tradition of scaring children with Krampus, The Raven from the North recommends the following short film from Czech director, Pavel Soukup: https://vimeo.com/147844819
6 A Krampuslauf is similar to a parade, in a way, where multiple individuals dressed up in Krampus costumes walk through the streets, threatening and whipping spectators. These laufs attract many spectators and are now taking place all over the world, not just in countries where Krampus originates.
7 Kullstroem, Chris. Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism around the World. 41-48.
8 It is during this interview that the reader finds out that the Krampus costume well exceeds 60 pounds, which is
certainly quite impressive! Kullstroem; 49.
9 Kullstroem; 50.
10 Ridenour. 67-68.
12 Ridenour; 70-71.
Heather Moser is a classicist who loves reading, writing, and researching a variety of topics including ancient history, folklore, and the supernatural. She has published poetry, short stories, and academic papers as well as presented at conferences both in the United States and abroad. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Krampus drawing below courtesy of the Raven, from the North of Krampus