- December 18, 2023
- Katja Hoyer
- Themes: Christmas
While the chest-beating behaviour of Austrian youngsters in hairy costumes may appear outdated when measured by modern Western standards, the deep emotions that draw so many people to Krampus runs every year are not.
For many, Christmas is a time for cosy things. They light candles, eat comfort food and spend time with friends and family. But in Austria, December is also a period of reckoning as the darkest time of the year affords little distraction from feelings of fear and guilt. It is the time of Krampus, Santa’s demonic helper.
Unlike the anglosphere’s Santa Claus, who is assisted by diminutive, green-clad elves, Alpine Saint Nicholas has an altogether more frightening sidekick. The devilish Krampus is responsible for punishing the naughty and has captured the imagination of Austrians for centuries.
Every year, people don elaborate costumes before taking to the streets to terrify onlookers. And every year, things get out of hand as masked youngsters lose control, breaking bones and teeth in the process. Some critics now decry the ‘toxic masculinity’ of this ritual, but for most Austrians, Krampus remains a much-cherished Christmas tradition.
To outsiders, Austria’s Krampusläufe or Krampus runs can appear bizarre, even brutal. They traditionally take place around 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day, and involve mostly young men and teenage boys dressed in furs and masks parading through the streets. They aim to frighten others with antics ranging from growling and brandishing birch rods to hitting onlookers with them.
There is often much shoving and pushing as the men involved want to show they aren’t frightened at all. Some Krampus runs end in outright brawls between the Krampuses and their opponents. Earlier this month, the Austrian media spoke of ‘wild scenes’ taking place in the picturesque town of Straßburg in the south of the country. The protective barrier between the audience and the parade had been moved and a man immediately lashed out at the Krampuses. The 43-year-old’s fists struck blows so hard that one of the elaborately carved Krampus masks was broken. When a 16-year-old girl attempted to calm the situation, she too was hit in the face and required hospital treatment.
Other violent incidents made headlines. In Lienz, a medieval town and tourist hot spot in Tyrol, a 25-year-old was badly injured shortly after midnight on 2 December. The man later said he had heard bell-ringing, a typical sound accompanying the runs, and wanted to see the spectacle. He suffered severe head injuries and memory loss in an alleged Krampus attack. The police are still looking for suspects.
Injuries aren’t always inflicted deliberately. Many accidents happen in the rough back-and-forth between the Krampuses and their spectators. Last year a 10-year-old boy broke his foot when one of the masked men moved a metal barrier without care. A woman was badly injured this year when a Krampus grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder and onto the ground. Due to the mask, the police have no idea who the culprit is.
In a recent court case, a woman from Tyrol was granted 23,000 Euro compensation for an incident where an iron chain worn by a Krampus had knocked several of her teeth out. In the first instance, her case had been rejected as the court in Innsbruck argued that attending Krampus runs even as a spectator is associated with certain risks.
It is indeed well-known and widely accepted that the Krampus tradition carries a high risk of injury for everyone involved. Bruises and marks from being hit with the birch rods are considered normal. Whiplash is a constant risk given that boisterous youths attempt to grab Krampuses by their horns.
Often the rituals have highly sexualised connotations for young men and boys who feel free to chase and even attack women and girls. There are many Austrian women today who say they will stay at home when they know Krampus runs are happening. One told a German newspaper that she leaves work early on such days and is picked up by her boyfriend for protection.
Why then do so many Austrians, including women and children, cherish the Krampus runs? Despite the ongoing controversy around them, they seem to be growing in popularity with many events reporting attendance figures in the tens of thousands.
The answer lies precisely in the risk the attendees expose themselves to. Fear and pain are not an unfortunate side effect. They are what Krampus runs are about. The Austrian justice system takes that into account as legal expert Verena Pronebner explains: ‘If you get hit and injured while attending a Krampus run, you do not always have the right to compensation’ because people attend to take part in a ritual in which individuals get dragged out from the crowds and ‘roughed up’. For many that is why they come.
Krampus is meant to be frightening. He is the bad to Santa’s good. The pair usually appear together, one punishing naughty children, the other rewarding those who were good with sweets and small gifts. Santa keeps Krampus on a leash as symbolised by the chains that are often part of the costumes, but his control over his demonic companion is fragile. Krampus sometimes manages to break loose and spread terror wherever he goes until he is banished once again as good prevails over evil. Santa and angels often accompany the Christmas events today, sometimes demasking Krampus at the end or chaining him once more.
It’s a winter ritual that is centuries old and contains Christian and pagan elements. At its core is an association of the end of the year as a time of reckoning. Even when Santa has full control over Krampus, naughty children are punished for the sins they may have committed. It is the fear of punishment for misdoings, even for those one has got away with, that is intended to confirm a sense of right and wrong in them.
But there is also an untamed and random element once Krampus breaks free of all control. The masked men (and it still is mostly men behind the masks, if not exclusively), are free to snarl, threaten, push, grab and leer while they are Krampus, their relative lawlessness sanctioned by a society that treasures this annual ritual of release. In turn, such lawlessness makes them fair game for those who want to prove how brave they are.
At the other end Krampus’s potential victims experience real fear and pain. Will the terrifying creature with his chains, bells and rod pick them out? Krampus also represents the darkness of winter, the doubts and insecurities of isolation in villages cut off by the snow and of long nights with little to do but think. He represents cruelty and the callousness of fate that can strike at any time without pity.
But importantly Krampus is always beaten. As surely as day follows night and spring follows winter, so Christianity will prevail over moral evil – that is the message. ‘It’s a Catholic country. It works through traumatisation… so we have Krampus,’ the Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz told a bemused American audience on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show a number of years ago.
Rightly or wrongly, it is real and deep fear followed by the cathartic release that draws so many Austrians to the Krampus runs every year. Interestingly, this seems to work for many outsiders too. The German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, for instance, sent one of their writers to Austria this year to find out ‘why one would do such a thing?’ He came back reporting to have ‘experienced emotions that no Berlin award-garde performance has so far been able to stir in him.’ Der Spiegel, a German political weekly, sent a female reporter who concluded that she still found the tradition ‘bizarre’, ‘not funny’ and ‘outdated’ but she too gained a glimpse of how ‘the bad and the wild are fascinating, that it is attractive for people to push boundaries in confronting their own fears.’
It goes without saying that violent excesses, particularly when fuelled by alcohol, are reprehensible. Many Krampus clubs have strict rules on drinking. Some have replaced the traditional birch rods with soft horse hair whips. Yet others put on elaborate shows with storylines and special effects where they don’t touch members of the audience at all. But at its core, the Krampus tradition remains about fear with its horror masks, deafening noise and night-time setting.
While the chest-beating behaviour of Austrian youngsters in hairy costumes may appear outdated when measured by modern Western mores, the deep emotions that draw so many people to the spectacle every year are not. Experiencing fears that are hardwired into us and the cathartic relief that follows when the demons that plague human minds through long winter nights are eventually banished is clearly a ritual as relevant to Austrian society today as it has always been.