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While we feel that Krampus are all in good fun, some people may find some of the images in this article to be disturbing.
One of my favorite things to do is to learn about other cultures’ traditions. Over the past few years, my husband and I included the Austrian tradition of celebrating Krampus alongside St. Nicholas as part of our festivities. Since my husband’s heritage is from that part of the world, we’ve decided to include Krampuses in our Christmas traditions. In addition to our other festivities, we seek out a special Krampus event to attend.
Who is Krampus?
Quite simply, Krampus is the Christmas Devil.
Say what? Yes, I know…. You don’t normally think about Santa Claus, or more properly, St. Nick, hanging out with a demon. But historically, it seems like Krampus provided us with the origin story of what we now think of as the “naughty and nice list.” Let me tell you a little about where Krampuses come from, his legend, and how people celebrate him today.
In the mountains of Austria, Christmas time is a cold, snowy season. Darkness comes early, and with that darkness comes a little mystery. The mystery lying in the shadows is the Christmas devil himself. Krampus is the companion, or side kick, to St. Nicholas.
You may be familiar with St. Nicholas as the harbinger of the Christmas season with his feast day observed on December 6th. St. Nicholas is commonly depicted as someone who brings treats to those who have been good. But here’s where it gets interesting. St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of thieves; many call upon him to intercede on their behalf when they have committed a crime or need forgiveness for an unsavory deed. So it’s only natural that St. Nicholas has a counterpart to help him keep his hands clean.
Krampuses take care of those who have committed these dirty deeds (probably done dirt cheap – couldn’t resist) by flicking his whip upon the guilty to purify them of their sins. And if you’ve just been that bad, he’ll put you in his sack and take you down to the fires of hell. No St. Nick for you.
You Better Watch Out…
For many years, the Catholic Church has rejected Krampus, but he’s back on the upswing and his popularity is growing outside of Austria. Because of his close association with St. Nicholas, Krampus gets a pass these days. Sure, Krampus is scary. But that is the intention. He’s becoming more and more accepted and is being used by many families as a morality tool.
Many of us grew up hearing stories about the boogey man or some other terrifying creature. Krampuses are always there to remind children to behave. Parents might remind their children that the Krampuses are watching.
You know the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” Now that you know about Krampuses, you may hear it a little differently now.
“He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”
At one of the events we attended this year, one of the speakers from Austria described the concept of private Krampus. He spoke of the way his family celebrates Krampus at home; this is separate from the community celebration.
He recounted a story as a child where he and the other children of his family would gather together to wait for Krampus to visit. They waited for Krampus to determine if they had been bad or good. He recalled sitting on a bench with one of his grandfathers sitting on either side of him, stern and scary. And when he heard the sound of a tractor, he knew that the older boys in his family had arrived, dressed as Krampuses to terrorize them to determine if they had not been good. He said the terror was so much fun!
I think that terror he felt must be similar to the joy one takes in watching a horror movie. The way one’s adrenaline pumps for a good jump scare, and then leaves you feeling breathless and giddy. I’ve felt that way at a Krampus event before. They are scary to look at, but when they come for you, you can’t help but laugh in mock fear. It’s really quite hysterical and fun, and you are left wanting more.
Krampus is typically celebrated on the evening of December 5th – the night before St. Nicholas’s Saint Day and is called Krampusnacht. However, there’s now a season that begins as early as October in some parts of Austria, and it runs through Christmas. There are several ways to celebrate Krampus.
Saint Nicholas and Krampus on the parade route for the Krampus Run in downtown LA. I love how the moon and the rain just helped to set the scene. St. Nick gave my husband some coal and several of the Krampuses got my ankles with their switches. #saintnicholas #krampus #krampuses #krampusrun #krampusesofinstagram #christmas #downtownla #artwalkLA #coal #fullmoon #itneverrainsinsoutherncalifornia
Krampus celebrations most commonly include a Krampuslauf, or run. A Krampus run is not anything like a 10 K. It’s more like a heavy metal version of the running of the bulls. Several people dress up in heavy, elaborate costumes covered in bells with wooden masks, and the masks can weigh up to 40 pounds.
The masks are amazing. To learn about how the masks are made, you need to see the documentary Tuifl. The masks are often passed down from father to son for generations. The craftsmanship is amazing. Many of them are carved from a single piece of wood.
Personally, I can’t imagine wearing such a heavy wooden mask. You have to be really strong to wear the Krampus costume. Here’s the trailer to give you an introduction to the artistry that goes into making these costumes.
Those dressed as Krampuses run through the streets of their local villages (or even here in Los Angeles) chastising sinners. They carry whips made from leather or horse-tail, and are covered in bells. Their appearance is terrifying, but it’s all in good fun. You know that kind of terror that makes you giddy? That’s the kind of feeling I get when I’m at a Krampus run. Consequently, if you love haunted houses, you would love a Krampuslauf.
There’s a Krampus Run in Los Angeles
Here in Los Angeles, we celebrate in a variety of ways. There is an annual Krampus Run, typically in Downtown LA. There’s also a Krampus Ball, some concerts and recently, a Krampus Play. These events are organized by Krampus Los Angeles.
A visit from Krampus means we are ready for Christmas! Some of the Krampuses were visiting from Austria. The parade in downtown LA was in the same path where the Art Walk is held with a party afterwards at The Must. The run featured St Nicolas and Krampus on a steam car on a cold rainy night escorted by about 50 other Krampuses. It was perfect. What a great time at the #krampusrun! #christmas #parade #krampus #holiday #downtownla #downtown #themust #krampuses #krampusesofinstagram
The Nicholas-Krampus Play, or the Nicholausspiel
Traditionally, the story of Krampus would have been shared via the oral tradition. As people began to record their histories, many of these traditions were preserved as plays. The play is known in Austria as the Nicholausspiel and has been designated by UNESCO as part of Austria’s “intangible cultural heritage.”
These plays were performed until the 17th century. Commonly, St. Nicholas was shown as the hero, and Krampus was shown as his disciplinarian sidekick. The plays are allegorical in nature and are used much like how we would treat a reading of Aesop’s Fables. They were meant to instruct one on issues of morality and to guide you toward being a better person. With a bit of terror thrown in for fun, of course.
The Nicholausspiel at the Church of the Angels
My husband and I attended a presentation of the Krampus Play at the Church of the Angels in Pasadena earlier this month. It was a performance of the first English language translation of the Nicholausspiel. What we saw was was an original translation by Krampus expert and author, Al Ridenour. The version we saw came from the silver mining town of Schwaz in Tyrol.
I’m an Elizabethan scholar, and the Nicholausspiel felt very familiar to me despite being a new translation. It wasn’t so much the story of the Krampus that was familiar, but rather the format. The play’s allegorical nature reminded me of the traditional mummers plays that one would have seen in England, Scotland and Wales during the Renaissance. It had the feel of a traveling troupe come to the local village to share mesmerizing tales from afar. These plays are told in rhymed couplets so the lessons are easy to remember. They feel to a modern audience very much like one of Dr. Suess’s rhymes. It seems like the Krampuses were rhyming on stage long before Shakespeare and Hamilton made it cool.
While the traditions predate the Renaissance by several centuries, the Nicholausspiel also shares common elements with that of Commedia dell’Arte. Stock characters like a foolish man opposing a virtuous one are common to both art forms. They share common themes related to duality – good and evil, foolishness and wisdom, virtue and vice. The use of an exaggerated mask in Commedia defined its character just as Krampus’s mask defines him.
A true delight
The play was delightful. The audience was filled with children as well as adults, and while Krampuses are meant to cause a fright, they truly enjoyed it. After the show, many of the children were hugging Krampus! Even the big kids like me!
Learning more about Krampus
If you would like to learn more about the history and traditions celebrating Krampus, there’s a great book by Al Ridenour (of Krampus Los Angeles) that you can check out called The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.
There’s also a few movies out there too, but they aren’t really about the REAL Krampus. But they are fun if you like the horror genre. In addition to that, we also really love that you can now find ugly Krampus sweaters too! We now have a Krampus ornament that we put on our Christmas tree each year. You may enjoy having some good old-fashioned Krampus fun too!
Merry Krampus T-Shirt-That Funny Shirt-Large-Black
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This article was originally published on December 14, 2016 and was updated and republished on November 9, 2018.