Much of Europe has a venerable Christmas or December tradition that pairs the good bishop-like St. Nicholas with a demonic, nasty character known as Krampus (and various other regional names). In Alpine Austria and southern Bavaria, this wintertime good-cop/bad-cop routine often exhibits aspects scary enough to put the fear of the devil into adults, not to mention young children. As St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) approaches, youngsters in Austria and Bavaria begin to have serious thoughts about whether they have been naughty or nice. They know Krampus is coming, and he’s definitely not nice.
In addition to an appearance in local family homes, usually along with St. Nicholas, Krampus and his cohorts also gather to put on a wild show in the streets of many Austrian and Bavarian towns. The “show” is known as a Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Customs vary by locality, but the tradition goes back hundreds of years, and far, far beyond a mere lump of coal in a kid’s stocking. An American witness to several Krampusläufe in Austria writes: “The ability to be genuinely frightened of someone wearing a costume is often left behind in childhood, and as an adult it is a bizarre experience. Fleeing from a person wearing a wooden mask and brandishing a bundle of sticks is terrifying but also exhilarating.”
The writer, Michael Karas of The Record newspaper in New Jersey, continues: “While being relentlessly pursued through the snow by a horned beast dead set on punishing the wicked may seem like an unorthodox path to embracing the holiday spirit, the lashings were an immediate catalyst for introspection, after which I found myself silently promising to become a better person in the new year.”
In the early evening winter darkness of November and December, in towns and cities across Austria and southern Germany, you can see young children, teenagers, and adults being intimidated and scared out of their wits by people dressed as demonic, horned, goat-like, masked creatures running around with torches and instruments of torture that include twig switches and whips! In most cases, the Krampusse are running rampant, without any “good guys” around. Unlike a typical Halloween house of horror in America, this is no tame, we’re-all-having-fun theater of fake horror. In Austria and elsewhere, these ugly masked Krampus figures actually lash out at people, young and old, sometimes inflicting physical injury (scratches, bruises) and always imparting a degree of mental anguish. If you don’t believe me, watch the video of a Krampuslauf in Graz, Austria below.
Video: 2013 Krampuslauf in Graz, Austria
Austria is a true hotbed of anti-Santa Krampus events all over the land. There is even the Kärntner Krampusshop, a retail and online store for all things Krampus in St. Jakob im Rosental, between Villach and Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia (Kärnten), that also has an international clientel. The shop offers basically anything that has to do with Krampus costumes, masks, and assorted Krampus paraphenalia. A really good Krampus outfit includes everything from the mask (carved wood) to special teeth, glowing eyes, hooves, hides, fur, horse tails (used as switches), and much more.
Krampus in the USA
Some Americans – fed up with what they view as the far too saccharine, ho-ho-ho, very neat and tidy, commercialized Santa Claus tradition found in the United States today – have turned to European Alpine folklore and customs for an alternative. The trend has even inspired an American Krampus comic book series and a 2015 Hollywood Krampus movie. A few American cities, scattered from coast to coast, now conduct a Krampuslauf or a Krampusfest in early December. Portland, Oregon will conduct its sixth annual Krampuslauf along Hawthorne Blvd. on Dec. 5, 2015. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania holds what is termed a “family friendly” Krampuslauf that features a “Parade of Spirits,” mask-making and other craft workshops. For 2015, the Philly event takes place at Liberty Lands park on Dec. 12. There are also Krampus events in Los Angeles, Bellingham, Washington; Burlington, Vermont; San Francisco, and Denver. Krampus Los Angeles features a Krampus Ball (Dec. 5), a Krampus play, and other Krampusfest events. But compared to Europe, the US events are still fairly tame. The Philadelphia Krampus event site notes: “Do not scare anyone who does not want to be scared!” That’s not how it works in Austria.
There are a few places where the Krampus ceremony has become more of a mid-winter, testosterone-fueled alcoholic binge, where scaring kids takes a back seat to heavy drinking and harrassing women. But for the most part the 450-year tradition (no written records prior to 1582) is observed properly, and is making something of a comeback in Austria after being discouraged by church and civic authorities in the recent past. In certain parts of Austria today there are “Krampuspassen” (Krampus associations) in communities large and small, particularly in the provinces of Kärnten (Carinthia), Salzburg, and Tirol. Throughout November and December, they participate in Krampus (and Perchten) runs all across southerm Austria.
In neighboring Germany, in the Bavarian capital city of Munich, the 2015 Krampuslauf am Münchner Christkindlmarkt takes place on two Sundays (Dec. 13 and 20) from 3:00 to 5:00 pm on Munich’s main square, the Marienplatz. Interestingly, Munich offers a special pre-run “Schulstunde” that trains young children not to be afraid of the scary figures they will encounter during the event. Parents can bring their kids to Munich’s Altes Rathaus (old city hall) for the special Krampus class at 2:00 pm on the day before the real thing.
Krampus is known as “Schmutzli” in Switzerland, but the Krampus custom is not really a Swiss thing. In 2015 a Swiss Fasnacht (carnival) association, das Narrenkomitee Schnapsloch, founded in 1945, sponsored the first ever Krampuslauf in Switzerland. To celebrate the club’s 70th anniversary, using their made-in-Austria Krampus carnival attire, the group conducted a Swiss “Schmutzli-Umzug” on the evening of November 14. The first Swiss Krampus parade ran along the streets of Welschenrohr, a small town (pop. 1,129) in the canton of Solothurn. Here’s amateur video of the event.
Note that the Klausjagen custom in Küssnacht, Switzerland is very different from an Austrian Krampuslauf. Instead of devilish monsters alone, the Klausjagen parade is made up of about 200 white-clad men bearing artistic lamps (Iffelen) on their heads, followed by over a thousand noisy, whip-cracking, horn-blowing, cow-bell-ringing Klausjäger. The main event starts on Dec. 4 at 8:15 pm. See this video for a better picture.
KRAMPUSLAUF GLOSSARY: The Cast of Characters
Below you’ll find a brief “who’s who” (or “what’s what”) in the world of Krampusse (the plural of Krampus). The names and customs are very localized, differing from one valley to the next in some cases.
Berchta: Another term for Perchta. See “Perchta” below.
Buttnmandl (Buttnmandllaufen): An Advent custom found in the Berchtesgaden region of southern Bavaria. At various times in December in small towns named Loipl, Winkl, or Maria Gern, the Buttenmandl (straw-wrapped figures), similar to Perchten, appear in a procession with or without St. Nicholas. (See the photo below.)
Frau Holle: Both a Grimm fairy tale character and a north-German pagan goddess. The goddess Frau Holle may be related to the goddess Berchta/Perchta in that the names’ origin has the same meaning: “bright” or “gleaming.”
Klausentreiben, das: Another word for “Krampuslauf” that is used in Switzerland and the Allgäu region of Germany. Also known as “Klausjagen” or “Chlausjagen” in Switzerland. Web: Das „Klausentreiben“ in Oberstdorf (Allgäu)
Knecht Ruprecht: A Krampus-like figure in Germany.
Krampus: The name comes from “Krampen,” the old German word for claw (Kralle in modern German). Regional names for Krampus in various dialects include: Kramperl, Miglo, Tuifl, or Tuifltratzen. Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure who punishes bad children during the Christmas season. He is generally a towering, menancing hairy creature with a very long tongue, a goat’s head, horns, and cloven hooves.
Krampuslauf (plural, Krampusläufe): Das Krampuslaufen, the “Krampus run” tradition, is increasingly popular in the Alpine region that includes southern Austria, southern Bavaria, Croatia, northern Italy, and Slovenia. Krampus runs are held from mid-November to mid-December. After mid-December similar events called a Rauhnachtslauf or a Perchtenlauf are held up until January 6 (Epiphany).
Krampuspass, die (plural, Passen): A “Krampuspass” is a local Verein (association, club) whose members participate in Krampus runs or other Krampus events. During a Krampus run, each group designates a member to carry a sign bearing the association’s name and locality: Igonta Pass (Hallein), Göll Pass (Kuchl), and Juvavum Pass (Salzburg). A Pass usually has from 8 to 20 members, each of whom portrays a certain role (witch [Hexe], Krampus, Nikolaus, etc.). Local business sponsors help finance the association’s activities. There can be as many as 80-100 Passen in a region.
Pass, die (Austrian German) 1. The group comprising St. Nicholas (Nikolaus), Krampus and other escorts. 2. A special association or club made up of members who participate in a Krampuslauf. See “Krampuspass” above. – Not to be confused with the everyday German term der Pass (Pässe): passport, (ball, mountain) pass.
Pelznickel: A Krampus-like figure in the Swabian region of Germany.
Perchta (plural, Perchten): Also known as Berchta, Perchta is the female counterpart of Krampus, but of course it’s really not that simple. First of all, most of the people playing Perchten these days are men. Although the terms Krampus and Perchta often get conflated, they are actually two different entities with two different backgrounds. Perchten are properly associated with the period between winter solstice and January 6 (the so-called Rauhnächte, the period between Christmas and Epiphany), and are technically not part of the pre-Christmas, Advent tradition. However, some Krampus runs include Perchten, and the distinction between the two has become fuzzy. For much more detail than I can include here, see the German “Perchta” or English “Perchta” entry at Wikipedia.
Quantembermann: A male version of a Perchta (normally female) in Carinthia in southern Austria. The Slovene term is “Kvaternik” (the man of the four Ember days).
Schirchperchten: Dialect for “ugly Perchten,” mean Krampus-like figures found in certain Alpine regions. See “Perchta” above.
Schmutzli: The Swiss German name for Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht.
Schönperchten: Dialect for “pretty Perchten,” nicer figures who accompany St. Nicholas. See “Perchta” above.
More names for Krampus (in German) from kirchenweb.at: Bezeichnungen für den Begleiter des Nikolaus
I really enjoyed doing the research and learning more about Krampus. I Hope you enjoyed reading about it, and that you’ll soon get a chance to participate in a Krampuslauf somewhere. If you do, please send me some photos!
For more about Christmas in German-speaking Europe see Christmas from A to Z and the related links below.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Photo Gallery: Christmas in Germany – Berlin – A visual tour of Christmas markets and other December sights in Berlin
- Christmas Carol Lyrics – Popular German and Austrian carols with lyrics in German and English
- Christmas in the USA and Germany– A comparison chart
- Barbarazweig – The legend and the Christmas custom
- Epiphany and the Sternsinger – January 6 in the Germanic Christmas tradition
- St. Nicholas – The many German St. Nicks
- Thomas Nast created the modern Santa image.
- The Christmas Pickle Ornament – Fact or fiction?
- Silent Night (Stille Nacht) – Our “Silent Night” page has the true story and related links.
- Holidays and Celebrations in Austria, Germany and Switzerland
- Glass Ornaments – a history