The Dark Side of Christmas

Ever wondered what happens to children who won’t be “good for goodness sake”? In Austria, Krampus comes for them and Jasmin James knows all about it.

Krampus comes for all the naughty children at Christmas. Photo: «R☼Wεnα/ Flickr

Krampus comes for all the naughty children at Christmas. Photo: «R☼Wεnα/ Flickr

Part goat, part devil, the horned demon Krampus beats naughty children and, if they have been truly bad, stuffs them in his large sack and drags them off to his fiery pit… Or so the legend goes.

Krampus traditionally accompanies St. Nicholas, the pre-cursor of Santa Claus, on the eve of December 5, which is the official Krampus Day.

Together, they visit homes, schools, businesses and even homeless shelters – with the Christmas Devil usually hovering harmlessly at St. Nick´s side, occasionally swatting people lightly with his birch stick.

But the days when children honestly feared the alpine monster are long gone. In fact, nowadays, provoking a Krampus and staying out of its reach is a popular test of courage for them.

Yet, for people who want to experience a wilder version of the Christmas devil, annual Krampus runs (Krampusläufe) and parades are the place to be. These take place in cities and villages throughout Austria and Bavaria.

One of the largest events, at Bad Goisern in Upper Austria, featured around 800 of the masked miscreants at a time when it took place in 2011.

Traditionally, its young, unmarried men who hide behind the elaborate wooden masks and chase people through the streets at night.

Dressed in sheep or goat skin, carrying chains, wooden switches or whips, they also make an appearance at Christmas markets – though the clanging of bells sewn into their costumes usually warn people that a Krampus is approaching.

Violent incidents during runs and parades do occur when some of the Christmas Devils take their role a tad too literally, though codes specifying behaviour rules generally prevent this from happening.

The Church, which did not approve of the celebration of a devil, forbade people by pain of death to dress like the mythical figures during the time of the Inquisition. The most prominent ban however was issued by the National Socialists, who wanted to eliminate what they considered a social-democratic tradition.

Krampus was seen as a celebration of excessive violence and loose morals. In former days, the rich elite also feared the power the masked creatures wielded, who wouldn´t hesitate to wreak havoc among the wealthy, thereby exposing the injustice of society.

The figure still polarises up to this day, with parents refusing to let Krampi enter day care centres and schools, saying that they propagate a culture of fear.

This year, a prominent Krampus run, supposed to be held on  November 21 in Ossiach, Carinthia, has been cancelled as fears abound that refugees might react violently if confronted with the threat of (semi-) staged violence.

For me, Krampus represents a cherished part of my childhood. The appearance of the legendary figure in my small, cozy primary school gym broadened my world and made it appear, at least for a few moments, mysterious and magical.

In many ways, the Krampus tradition is not about using fear as a tool for subjugation – it’s about celebrating and ultimately embracing it.

Maybe it’s time people started remembering that?