Better watch out: Krampus is coming
Most are familiar with the traditions of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus. The Christmas folklore includes the idea that Santa Claus places coal in the stockings of naughty children. What is so bad about coal that would cause Santa Claus to use it as punishment? Well, it is not Santa who brings coal, but Krampus. Just as Santa flies from the North Pole to distribute gifts, Krampus arrives from the depths of the underworld to punish. It is not Santa we should fear, but Krampus.
Krampus origins are a mystery, but his motives are quite clear; he comes to punish children who have misbehaved. The manifestation of Krampus is kept alive in the Alpine regions of Germany and Austria with a multitude of festivals and parades.
A Krampuslauf, or “Krampus run” is a common event, where Krampus comes alive in full regalia. A search on the internet will yield many Krampuslauf events, but Salzburg’s is one of the most famous. I went Nov. 26, 2016. The event was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., and a detailed map was provided of the event path. The path was about four blocks, and there were food and beer booths set up for warm wine and finger foods. Tip: Arrive early to determine where you’d like to stand and dress in layers because the cold air can be just as unforgiving as Krampus.
Although a photograph can capture an image, it cannot capture the ambience. I feel I need a dark night in the wilderness, a slowly fading campfire, and an abandoned summer lake camp to properly set the scene for what was witnessed firsthand.
I took my place at one of the four corners of the block next to jovial teens who appeared oblivious to their surroundings, or perhaps they did not fear Krampus. To my right, three small boys were bundled up tightly in winter clothing, their faces tucked in their blue and orange winter jacket hoods. Their parents stood behind them, drinking Glühwein and chatting under their breath while pointing between the two children; conceivably, placing bets about which child would scream or flee first. Evidently, the parents knew more than the kids, who stood anxiously awaiting the event to start.
Suddenly, a loud horn broke the revelry, followed by the sounds of chains, drums and the churning of wheels over the brittle bones of mankind. Those little boys turned toward their parents with terror in their eyes, who returned warm smiles and cutting eyes of disdain. To my surprise the mother was the first to push the kids beyond the barrier. I felt an empty rush of air on my left, and the teens had squeezed themselves together as if huddling over the last embers of a reassuring flame.
The first wave of Krampus turned the corner, and I realized these were not Wal-Mart special costumes. Imagine the “Dark Crystal,” “Star Wars,” “The Hobbit” and any other movie you can think of with grand special effects — but this was real. The Krampus moved with an animal gait and peered with hungry eyes. The kids to my right started screaming as the Krampus approached. They attempted to turn and flee, but their parents kept them propped against the gate, allowing Krampus to smell their souls and leave coal dust along their clothing and faces.
Another Krampus grabbed the hat off one of the teens to my left. He placed the hat in his mouth, took a step back and bore his teeth while cocking his head. The kid stood his ground. Krampus took the hat from his mouth and threw it toward the crowd. When the kid turned his back, Krampus repeatedly struck his legs, as well his friends’ legs, with a cow-hair whip.
This was only the first wave. The night was still young. The safety of dawn was forever away.
Two hours later, I was still alive and had photographic proof Krampus in all his glorious forms, shapes and sizes. I am convinced the only way I went unscathed was to document this event for the rest of the world. Until next year.
Upcoming Krampus events
Dec. 5, Klagenfurt, Austria
Dec. 5-6, Berchtesgaden, Germany
Dec. 7, Bad Goisern, Austria
Dec. 9, Toblach, Italy
Dec. 11, Munich