Update: This post got so much love from family and friends that I decided to pitch it. And Atlas Obscura bought it!
Nothing rings in the holiday season quite like a parade of demonic goat-yaks wielding whips, chains, and a chainsaw or two.
Welcome to Carinthia. Meet Krampus:
Krampus is a complicated creature to explain. The modern story goes like this: He’s the dark sidekick of St. Nicholas, and his duties include throwing naughty kids into a sack or basket and beating them with a birch or cow-tail whip.
But Krampus is actually a remnant from Germanic paganism, and he pre-dates St. Nicholas by, like, a lot. Centuries ago, young Alpine men would don animal masks and run around their villages in an attempt to scare off the early signs of winter. Krampus may have emerged as the spirit associated with that practice. Unlike most pagan concepts, though, Krampus managed to survive the Romans, Charlemagne, etc., because he was written explicitly into the Christian St. Nicholas story.
Who really looks like the man in charge here?
Today, the most common way to encounter Krampus is to attend one of the several Krampusläufe, or “Krampus runs,” held each year in Carinthia, the southern Austrian state that borders Slovenia. (A handful of towns in Styria and Tyrol also perform Krampus pageants, traditional Alpine morality plays syncretized to fit with Catholic themes, but the parades are way more accessible for foreigners.) Most of the parades are held on or near December 5, which is St. Nicholas Eve. But Klagenfurt am Worthersee holds their Krampuslauf earlier, in late November, and claims it’s the biggest one in the country, with dozens of performance troupes from Austria, Slovenia, and Italy. That’s the one we picked.
The parade starts at Klagenfurt’s train station and ends in the historic town square, Alter Platz. It’s kicked off by troupe of young men banging 80-pound cow bells, which sets a decidedly eerie tone from the get go.
I caught an encore performance by the opening troupe later at the Christmas market:
Then, without further adieu, the street is flooded with winter spirits of all shapes, sizes, colors, and temperaments ….
This guy got up, close, and personal with me. I kissed his nose, which prompted applause from other onlookers.
The Easter Bunny … from Hell.
No one looks super worried about this fuzz ball. Notice the giant bell on his backside: every Krampus has at least one to warn you he’s on the way — like an evil jingle bell.
Women can’t play Krampus himself, but some participate in the parade as Percht, a range of forest demons and spirits associated with wintertime. Many women also serve as sign carriers for the troupes, and they dress as Engels (angels) or Hexen (witches).
This guy does not want to cuddle.
Krampus has a special interest in women with long hair. Many onlookers get their hair mussed or lightly pulled.
What a creep — I turned around and was startled by this guy.
This troupe released a smoke bomb and leapt out of the cloud.
This guy paused for a moment before jumping over the barricade into the crowd.
Supposedly, participants have to pass breathalyzer tests before the parade. Mm hm.
The Straight-Up Scary
All I want for Christmas is a head on a spike.
I swear, I’ll never call you an elf ever, ever again.
And yes, a few of the kids in the crowd couldn’t handle it. One boy dressed in a mini-Krampus costume tapped out almost immediately, and no amount of coaxing from his father could get him back to the front line. But most were totally enthralled. One small girl next to me attracted a great deal of attention from the monsters, but she never shrieked or cried. Every time one of the performers touched her head or shook her hand, she just gave a serene little smile and waited for the next one. I have a feeling there’ll be a lot of chocolate in her St. Nicholas shoe this year.
Unlike American holiday parades, there’s no “grand finale” with St. Nicholas, a mega-Krampus, or anything like that. The last troupe simply performs like any other. A fire truck crawls along behind the final Krampuses, signaling to the crowd that the show is over.
And just like that, Krampus is gone.
Thanks to last year’s U.S. movie, there’s been some chatter in Austria about the “over-commercialization” of Krampus. But I scoured the town and found exactly one Christmas market stall dedicated the Krampus kitsch — and it mostly sold chocolates.
My theory is that the lack of “Kampus krap” is due to the fact that he simply isn’t a joke in this part of the world. In Klagenfurt, Krampus is considered a fairly serious cultural tradition and rural Austrians are very protective of him. Two Krampus pageants are UNESCO protected, and Krampus troupes have to formally apply to perform in the Carinthian parades.
Krampus isn’t exactly a beloved figure in the the country’s capital, though. About a decade ago, Viennese schools banned Krampus-related performances. And on the rare occasion he appears at a city Christmas market at all, he’s only allowed to give children candy — no whippings.
Despite Vienna, this particular species of folk tradition isn’t in any real danger of extinction. Because Christmas in Austria just wouldn’t be the same without a giant, furry goat-yak growling in your face.
Bonus wolf spirit fight: