Krampus walks the winter nights of Central Europe

On December 5th and 6th, Krampus, a goat-like demon, walks the winter nights of Central Europe, sometimes alone and sometimes in packs.

“A guads Weitageh', treu in guadn oidn Brauch“ (More or less “A good moving on, true to the good old custom”, traditional greeting when two groups of Kramperl meet)

Most picturesque customs we see today from hiding Easter baskets to dancing around May poles and decorating Christmas trees are usually perceived as quite time-honoured, but usually can be traced back only to the late Middle Ages at best. Most carry one trait or the other, though, that is positively ancient. The appearance of evil things that go bump in the long winter nights of Northern Europe might indeed be one of them. And while there are quite a few festivals of light celebrated before midwinter and various luminaries appear, such as St Nicholas or St Barbara, there is usually something darker that creeps alongside of them. Knecht Ruprecht or some other form of imp accompanies St Nicholas to punish those who were naughty and not good for goodness sake. One chained devil, according to legend bound with the fetters that once held St Paul, is quite tolerable, but the Catholic regions along the Alps in Central Europe usually boast literal flocks of demons, while the frugal Protestants in the North usually have to make do with a single specimen.

St Nicholas and Krampus, 1901

The biped half-man, half-goat creatures with their lolling serpentine tongues and long horns might or might not be a remembrance of the old god of the witches, however, they were on the loose in Alpine villages at least since the High Middle Ages, running through the streets either to scare off other monstrosities or getting shooed away by the villagers, scapegoat-style, themselves. The practice was frowned upon by the local clergy, had been quite efficiently suppressed, survived in remote mountain villages and was revived in the days of the counterreformation. Now the Krampus, as the goat creatures were called, probably symbolised the terror the Proddies spread along with the torments of hell awaiting them. During the 19th century, a singular Krampus, obviously separated from the pack, played pretty much the same role as Knecht Ruprecht up north, punishing those children who didn’t behave themselves over the year, either whipping them with “Ruten”, a bundle of birch branches or grabbing them, cramming them in a basket strapped on his back, a so-called “Butte” or “Kraxn” and carrying them off to hell, whether they had Protestant sympathies or not. Santa Claus didn’t get his hands dirty and sometimes, Krampus even left his side and stalked the countryside all alone in search of victims, the cowbells around their necks sounding eerily through the winter night.

Scene from a Krampuslauf in Austria

Powered by spirituous beverages, the traditional Krampuslauf, the run of packs of the demons through the villages, deteriorated every now and then and since the literal horny devils carried a distinct erotic undertone, the custom was again discouraged about a 100 years ago and whipping fiends were no method of religious education anyway. Krampusläufe were revived to a greater extent quite recently and today several of them take place again, with children trying to tease the wonderfully clad devils for a dare, the Kramperltratzn or Kramperlstauben, while whole packs walk from house to house, rewarding those who had been good and punishing those who were naughty.

The image depicted above shows a traditionally dressed-up Krampus found on whose costume goes straight to the #wunderkammer , of course

And more about the Krampus and Krampusläufe on: