By now most everyone in the states has heard of Krampus. Either because of the popularity of the 2015 movie, or because of the widening popularity of this Christmas-demon spreading across festivals in America. I discovered him while curious-googling after an episode of “The Office” several years ago in which Dwight dresses up as Belsnickel, the southern German (much less benevolent) equivalent to Austria’s Krampus. I think it’s safe to say that in America, Krampus has become a popular household name during the holidays.
Krampus is essentially an anti-St. Nicholas character thought to have evolved from Pagan legends. He is typically portrayed as a beast/demon of half-goat-half-man with fur, massive horns, sharp claws, and who carries around a wad of birch branches to whip naughty children. I enjoyed reading this article on it.
December 5th (in my village and in many others in Germany), is the night before St. Nicholas day. Children leave out polished and clean boots on their doorsteps. They do this with hopes that they were good enough to get a visit from St. Nicholas and will find candies in their boots the next morning. This same night in many villages across Europe is also Krampusnacht, the night when mayhem and mischief is carried out by local kids. I haven’t heard much in my town except for the occasional egging of a house or car. Then again, we don’t go out on Krampusnacht. We don’t go out much in December in general because it’s dark, cold, and I prefer Gemütlichkeit.
I have witnessed St. Nicholas (in Germany, Sankt Nikolaus) wandering through local Christmas markets and neighborhood malls handing out oranges, candies, and nuts to children. He is typically very tall with a long white beard, slim, and is dressed similar to a Bishop carrying a long staff. I have never seen Krampus wandering these German markets. However, in many Austrian villages, it’s an entirely different scenario on the week leading up to Krampusnacht and Sankt Nikolaus day.
This past weekend we went skiing in Obergurgl, Austria where we met a very sweet girl named Franziska. She worked at the childcare center where our son stayed for a bit of our trip and when we asked about her experience with Krampus, she was eager to describe it. She told us about growing up in her small village where Krampus has always played a large role in winter. Krampus-clad folks roamed the streets waiting for victims to startle and sometimes became a bit too aggressive grabbing people and causing injuries. She told us with wide eyes about this “crazy tradition” that has been a part of her culture for centuries and only recently police have been stepping in to regulate the mayhem. She now prefers to stay inside the week before St. Nicholaus day, understandably.
Since this is our last winter in Europe before moving back to the states, I searched nearby towns for Krampus parades to check off one of my big “to see” boxes. Luckily, a larger ski resort town (Solden) was having their annual Parade just 12 kilometers away. Events typically take place the last two weeks of November until Krampusnacht itself on December 5th. The most common events are:
- Krampuslauf: typically a drunken race of participants dressed as Krampus running through the streets scaring people and “chasing away winter”. Apparently this has taken place for centuries and has become more boisterous as the years have gone on with more tourists, outrageous costumes, and rowdier participants.
- Krampus Parade: Exactly what it sounds like, for the most part. Participants dressed as Krampus scurry down the street scaring bystanders. The parades usually have elaborate floats, pyrotechnics, and blaring music. St. Nicholas is supposed to make an appearance to scare off the Krampus. These are typically geared towards families and usually don’t get out of hand.
How to Prepare Kids:
Krampus is NOT for the faint of heart. If you have small children, think twice about attending. Parents obviously know their children’s temperament and what they can and cannot handle. Still, if you decide to go to a parade it’s always best to prepare them because their reaction can be completely unexpected.
- Show pictures of Krampus characters. Manage expectations! This will help lessen the shock value when they see these beasts appear on the streets.
- Explain. Explain these are costumes, explain they are “actors”. My son has continued to tell people about this parade since we’ve gone and when asked if he was scared he says, “no, they are just people in costumes!”.
- Keep an eye on their reaction. If they are obviously freaked, retreat! Retreat! At the beginning our son was a bit spooked so we moved him away from everything, then he said he wanted to go back so we did. We spent the rest of the time watching the event and “ooooing” at the fire show and high-fiving Krampuses.
Thankfully, the Krampus parades take place not too long after American Halloween when most kids are still amped up from costumes and candy. As can be seen in our trip to Europa Park, our son has developed a fascination with all things “spooky” and has enjoyed watching things that are (kid-spooky, not adult-spooky) like Halloween cartoons on youtube and Halloween themed children’s books. We have thoroughly explained the terms “pretend”, “fake”, and “costume” to him which helped a lot. However, I think what helped the most is what happened when we were wandering the streets of Solden an hour before the parade trying to find the best spot to witness the spectacle. We ran into a family of Krampus characters without their masks on. There was a mom, dad, and son and as they held their morbid, terrifying heads in their hands, they smiled warmly at us and in English explained the procession and where to go to for the best view. They high-fived my son and he could see (as a first impression) the real people under the fur. Not the beasts.
What to Expect:
- Terrifyingly scary and elaborate costumes. As the years go on and as popularity grows, the masks become more and more grotesque and realistic. People pay hundreds of Euros to get these artistically hand-crafted masks with glowing eyes and hundreds more on accessories like birch whips, animal pelts, chains, etc.
- Assault. This is NOT America, meaning at some events they can and will grab you and take things from you. At our event, my hat was ripped from my head – and given back, eventually (this seems to be a tradition for me at German parades, see Fasching), we saw a young woman (late teens?) grabbed and thrown in the street while being whipped with birch branches, in fact…lots of kids and adults were subject to whippings. We saw a jail-like float filled with stolen children, parade floats of torture devices, lots of fire, and the scariest thing for most might be when these giant beasts charge at you with chainsaws and other weapons. Many folks retreated behind the fences and trees thinking they were safe, but soon enough the Krampus characters jumped the parade barriers and ended up in the crowd. No one
- Fire! Lots of fire! The parade culminated in a giant fenced in ring where the Krampus were corralled and performed an elaborate fire show with fireworks, flaming torches, and smoke bombs. Along the outside of the ring were burning barrels of fire with no barriers, so watch your kids and your hair. The local fire department was on site, just in case.
- Death metal blaring from the speakers. It seemed appropriate and adds to the energy of the event.
- High-fives and loving touches from Krampus…to your little kids. Yes, they are just people putting on a performance. While they may have lunged over gates waving clawed hands in MY face and chainsaws in MY hair, they approached my three-year-old with candy, high-fives, and soft pets to the head.
- Glühwein and snacks. As with most German and Austrian events, expect beers, drinks, hot alcohol and alcohol-free mugs being served along with vendors selling sausages, waffles, etc.
- Fun! Really, if you take it for what it is, the event is a lot of fun for everyone and most people have giant smiles and produce squeals of laugher.
All in all, I am so thrilled that we had the chance to experience this. I was not prepared for the amount of aggressiveness in the characters, or the amount of pyrotechnics which I think made the experience even more amazing. It was much more than I expected and is sure to get your adrenaline pumping.
How to Find Krampus Events:
Most towns will have events the Saturday before December 5th, so in 2016 these events will mostly take place on Saturday, December 3. Be sure to translate if they aren’t in English because some are kid-friendly, and some are NOT!
An upcoming kid-friendly one will be taking place in Innsbruck on Sunday, December 4th. The website claims this one “will not get out of hand and is safe”.
I searched for a few calendars that can get you started on your search, I’ve linked the pages below. Make sure you have google Chrome and good luck!
- Scour local tourist pages of Austrian towns. Look at their Events calendar and you’re sure to run across several that host Krampus Parades or a Krampuslauf.
- Book a room, here! Search for Tirol, Austria and surrounding towns.
I had a little fun with the videos I shot and made a “movie trailer” with iMovie: