Krampus? Who’s That?

Cavorting with a visitor from a pre-Christian Alpine tradition

The “anti-Santa” known as Krampus in Austria

You can hear him coming from far away, the clanking of heavy chains draped from his shoulders and rattling cowbells, bedecked in horns and sheepskins, face hidden behind a most appalling mask – the definition of a demon. He is, in essence, a character from a nightmare…

“So, are you ready for Krampus?” my friend Vel asked me the other day.

Krampus? So that’s who that was! This is the satanic figure who instills the fear of…, well, just about anything that happens to be “up there,”  in the hearts of Austrian children every year on Dec. 5th.

Almost every country has a mid-winter festival of light and a patron spirit to go with it: St. Nicolas, Santa Lucia or Viejo Pascuero (Old Man Christmas). Most, like the Christian Santa Claus of the Anglo-Saxon tradition are benign characters who come bearing gifts for all.

You don’t often hear about an evil Christmas spirit. For this reason, it’s a bit surprising to learn that in the Alpine regions of Europe there is an “anti-Santa” – known in Austria as Krampus.

The legend comes from pagan times, when Saint Nicholas was said to drive the devil away by asking the children to behave well in return. According to folklore, Saint Nicholas was a bishop and a virtuous man who helped poor children, and Krampus was the unavoidable representation of evil. This little essay, then, is offered as a gentle warning to those of you who have not yet prepared yourself for this Pannonian, pre-Christian tradition.

Here are the basic facts. Krampus was initially a companion of St. Nicholas, traveling with him on snowy winter nights and accompanying him to the homes of children who deserved nuts and mandarin oranges. The tradition originated in Bavaria and spread south through the provinces of what is now Austria. Today this custom lives on and Krampus continues to roam the streets, instilling terror in the hearts of the innocents and threatening punishment for their wayward ways.

So fine, you say. What’s the harm in that? A semi-scary guy in a mask, nothing too monstrous, to keep the kiddies in line.

In assuming this, however, you would be sadly mistaken. Krampus is in fact a fiend, fearful and revolting to look at. His misshapen features would scare the living daylights out of any human being, young or old, male or female. Walking down the street on Dec. 5th can be an act of courage, as along with the hideousness comes the element of surprise. Just as you emerge from the U-Bahn or settle in with that mug of mulled wine, Krampus may jump out from the darkness and attack you from behind a Punsch Stand, wielding his whip and laughing menacingly as he proceeds to beat you up. Or at least threaten to.

Basically, it’s good old Guilt, back from the Unconscious to haunt us with memories of our misadventures – de rigeur in a Catholic country like Austria, and much more fun than the flails or hair shirts of the medieval monks. For Catholics, Krampus can be compared to going to confession, but instead of coming clean to a priest you take your punishment from a gargoyle who simply assumes you have behaved badly and washes away your sins with a good beating or two. Now that I know what to expect from Krampus, and more importantly when to expect him, chances of preventing heart failure are reasonably good, even if I were to be unpredictably surprised by a visit. Still I am going around collecting tales of both Austrian and foreign experiences with this chilling figure. Forewarned is fore-armed.

I was at dinner recently with my friend Julian and his mother Maria, who come from Carinthia, near the Italian border. She described her childhood memories of Krampus, half-anticipating and half-fearing this creature every year, huddling together with her family while it snowed and listening anxiously for the sounds of the approaching bells and chains. Suddenly a loud booming would be heard at the door and Krampus would enter. It was a near mythical experience, she claimed: giant men looming behind Saint Nicholas with their grotesque masks, bouncing from one foot to the other in a contorted, menacing dance of wickedness. She would hide behind her mother, peeking out curiously from behind her skirt, torn between fear and curiosity. When Krampus finally departed, she would be left with the image of his imposing figure, a constant reminder throughout the New Year to keep on her best behavior.

Judging by the more recent tales circulating as Dec. 5th draws nearer, it has become evident that Krampus has changed and adapted to the times. No longer a fairytale figure, Krampus is credited with bouts of drunken rowdiness and beatings – playful or otherwise – of passersby in the streets. Whips are wielded, tambourines roll.

In Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, where my German professor went to school, young men would tank up on alcohol, dress up as Krampus, and roam the streets swinging right and left while the police generally turn a blind eye. This “beating” is meant to be symbolic, of course – more Sturm und Drang than real violence – but it can go over the edge and become a proper beating, not just a light tap on the bottom.

Generally though, it’s quite benign, in Vienna more street theater than hooliganism. And chances are good you will walk away without so much as a scratch. Whether your conscience is clear, however, is another matter.

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