Krampus is Coming to Town

The Christmas Demon comes to whisk away children who have been ‘naughty, not nice’

Credit to Stefan Koidl

At the very least since Austrian actor Christopher Waltz (‘Inglorious Bastards’) explained on The Tonight Show what Krampus means to and in his home country, the iconic figure has garnered global attention.

The eponymous Krampus, a festive Hollywood horror film, may have had something to do with that as well.

With some international newspapers decrying the practice as a barbaric holdover from a darker age encouraging crime and robbery under the cover of night, the tendency has been to lament over the dangers posed by the horned demon to susceptible children as well as the threat they represent to refugees unaccustomed to this specific brand of infernal merriment.

For people who lived in villages and were party to the traditional ‘Krampus runs’, wherein masked demons are given free reign to frighten and terrorize the local population, that fear can still prove debilitating. Austrian journalists have documented the traumatic experiences they associate with the figure extensively on outlets such as VICE or the German paper ZEIT, talking about how they barricaded themselves in at home , blinds closed, not daring to set a foot outside. Others speak of being so frightened of the ‘naughty’ verdict that they refused to see St.Nick and hid underneath the table till both he and his cloven-footed companion were gone.

As a child who grew up in urban Vienna, I got the tame, toned down experience. I remember sitting on wooden benches with other children in our primary school gym, anticipating gift bags full of chocolate and oranges. Even then, Krampus seemed the more interesting figure as he did not speak, making me wonder each time anew about the nature of this rough fellow. Some children loved to tease Krampus, giggling and weaving in and out of sight when he playfully struck the air with his switch.

At home, I would learn to recite a poem around the dark but harmless figure of ‘St.Ruprecht’, something every child in Austria is tasked to do before the much awaited visit. Ruprecht wasn’t as nefarious as Krampus yet they shared common roots-the poem about a figure instructed by the infant Jesus to take both his switch as well as a bag full of sweets and ferret out both ‘the naughty and nice children’ is interesting in that it seemingly combines the traits of St.Nicholas and Krampus in one figure.

As such, the dual nature of Ruprecht did not strike me as odd yet therein lies the origin story of this special brand of ‘Christmas horror’.

Men used to wrap themselves in furs and masks and walk into the darkness in order to scare away both ghosts and demons. As Christianity took hold, the custom became suspect with the earliest mention of it documented in form of a written note by St. Augustine in 400 AD. The eminent Catholic saint decried the practice as unholy and declared the practice to be against church law and tradition. In Austria, the Krampus tradition was popular but forbidden during the time of the Inquisition, seeing as no one was allowed to costume themselves as a devil. In some barely accessible areas of the alpine region, however, the custom endured, despite the looming threat of execution. With the local population selectively undermining the official edict, over time monastery schools in the mid-17th century began to incorporate the story into their own traditions.The figure of St. Nick was added to the mix in order to police the custom. (Yet in some areas of Austria, such as in Gasteinertal, Krampus is still seen as the figure who drives away the forces of darkness.)

Commercialisation of the figure occurred in the 80’s when Austria gave up the rights to postcard production. Until World War I, Germany began exporting Krampus themed cards to other countries. These variably featured a frightening version of the figure who hits children with his bundle of sticks or tries to stuff them into his sack but also ironically as someone prone to whisk even adults off. Everything from a kitschy ‘amourous Krampus’ to a vindicator serving just retribution to corrupt politicians has been featured.

There’s even a saying connected to the demon that explains the connotations with regards to social revolution. ‘Jemandem die Rute ins Fenster legen’ means to put a switch in somebody’s window-in the old days, Krampus would leave his bundle of sticks to signify that a master was inordinately cruel or miserly to his subordinates.

The tradition of Christmas horror is an old one, dating back to Victorian times-our favourite tale of the season, Dickens A Christmas Carol does, after all, feature three ghosts with the apparition of Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner, weighed down with chains and locks. With the focus these days being on presents and innocent cheer, it’s easy to forget that in the 19th century, Christmas was an occasion of wild revelry. It was characterized by people going door to door, demanding alcohol and threatening home owners if they did not receive it. In modern terms, the festivities would have resembled a mix of Halloween, Christmas and New Year. (And that’s also why Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands prove popular in the Advent season.)

Today, the 5th of December is the annual ‘Krampus Day’ followed by ‘St Nicholas’s Day’ on the 6th of December-a time when both lovers of what goes bump in the night as well as those wishing to enjoy some good Christmas cheer can get their dues.

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer