The Austrian Tradition of the Krampus

The Krampus is an alarming-looking creature which during in the Advent weeks in Austria (and in the Alpine regions of some other countries).

Originally thought to have come from the old pre-Christian myths involving beasts from the forest and creatures such as satyrs, the Krampus became linked with St Nicholas in the Middle Ages.

Some of the Krampus masks on display in Innsbruck

As with so many pagan customs, it was absorbed into the official Christian calendar. St Nicholas (aka 'Santa Claus') had by the 16th century started to become associated with the traditional pre-Christmas period of gift-giving which had become popular (again absorbing the local custom of December trade markets).

While he was the 'carrot' for boys and girls to be good, the Krampus were (quite literally) the 'stick'.

'If you are good, Niklaus will bring you something nice. But if you are bad, the Krampus might come and get you.'

So what is a Krampus?

The Krampus traditionally appeared on the night before the Feast of St Nicholas (the evening of December 5).

They wore animal skins and carved wooden masks, had bells tied onto their costume so that people could hear the clanking coming through the darkness, and they carried long sticks. The chains that they sometimes wear are thought to be related to the idea of the creatures being bound to their place in the underworld, while the sacks that they carry are to take very bad children away with them.

In days gone by, the Krampus were seriously feared by smaller children, who were tossed into the sack and then dragged through the snow.

Nowadays however many of the larger cities and towns have formal processions which tend to be fairly orderly. Since the people inside the Krampus costumes are usually young men, many of the more organised clubs who keep this tradition alive delegate some older members to keep an eye on what is going on. Some locations even order the Krampus costumes to be numbered so that onlookers have evidence of who may have stepped over the line in case of a dispute.