Dec 18th, 2023, 09:00 AM

A Christmas Nightmare

By Maple Hughes
Christmas market in Austria. (Image Credit: Scott Partee)
Exploring the Alpine Christmas Tradition of Krampus

It's Christmas time. The season for hot chocolate, ornately decorated trees, glittering holiday lights and, if you're in Austria, a goat-horned, cloven-hooved, beast-like creature armed with whips and birch rods.

Yes, you read that correctly. On the night of December 5, children are visited by the good cop and bad cop of the Advent season, Saint Nicholas and his demonic sidekick, Krampus. Depending on how naughty or nice they are, children are delighted with candy stuffed into their shoes or boots full of coal, twigs and a beating. 

 

The tradition is thought to have originated from pagan folklore, in which Krampus and his army of elves lurked in the Tyrolean Alps and appeared periodically to—quite literally—whip drunks, scoundrels and miscreants into shape. Naturally, parents used this as a threat to keep the kids from misbehaving. As Christianity rose to prominence in central Europe, Krampus was assimilated into the religious framework, being demoted to a supporting actor for Saint Nicholas. Thus this dynamic duo was born, with Krampus and Nikolo becoming two of the primary holiday figures in Austria. While Krampus is mostly associated with Austria, it is present in other countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, most notably in the Alpine regions of southern Germany and northern Italy.

A tradition that has recently gained traction on TikTok is Krampusläufe, or Krampus runs, where Krampus gets a chance to wreak havoc without his good-spirited counterpart. Throughout the Advent season, both adults and children line the streets, sometimes behind a gate for safety, while mostly young men masquerade through the streets dressed in terrifying Krampus attire. They shake chains, carry torches and frequently strike onlookers with their sticks, often inflicting bruises or even drawing blood.

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In addition to these parades, Krampus makes house calls. Along with Saint Nicholas, Krampus extends his torturous reign to the home, frightening children to the point of tears while parents look on laughing.

The tradition of Krampus has understandably garnered criticism for traumatizing children, who do not know that the demons leering at them for pulling their sibling's hair are actually their neighbor in a frightening costume. To them, it is real, and an event that they dread for months. Even for adults who are aware of Krampus's true identity, a demonic creature running towards you at full speed ready to beat you with a stick is nothing short of terrifying.

The scrutiny also derives from the brutal nature of Krampusläufe, which often leads to drunken brawls. Austrian news has frequently reported incidences of violence, such as firecrackers exploding in the hands of Krampusses, skull fractures caused by beatings as well as the far too common occurrence of sexual harassment.

It seems that the concealed identity of the mask may bring out something sinister in these young men. "I am the strong one, and you are my subjects who must be punished," says one Krampus in a series of interviews conducted by the Austrian news publication Der Standard, in which the voices behind the masks are finally heard. Martin Heid, a mask carver who frequently works with Krampusses, aptly remarks that "underneath a mask, you can do certain things you wouldn't do in your normal professional life."

Yet not all Krampus runs follow such a violent philosophy. Nigri Diaboli is an organization whose mission is to create a more modern and family-friendly version of the custom, emphasizing the performance aspect of Krampusläufe rather than the punishment ritual. They incorporate regulations to prevent the parades from getting out of hand, such as prohibiting the consumption of alcohol before shows and a policy against hitting children. Nigri Diaboli also refrains from using the Rute, the bundle of twigs that are traditionally used for beating, instead using "only" a horsewhip.

Is it toxic masculinity, a power trip or simply respect for the old traditions? Josef Pickl, who organizes the largest Krampuslauf in Austria seems to think of it more as a cycle of abuse. "I started Krampusläufe because I was afraid of Krampus. So I thought, I'll dress up myself so I get a little bit of rest from the 'big' Krampusses. Our best Krampusses are actually the ones who were really kind of 'cowardly' as children in relation to Krampus," Pickl says.

The phenomenon of Krampus raises many questions, but it is Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who perhaps puts it best: "it's a Catholic country, it works through traumatization."