Austria is a Christmassy sort of place. It gets plenty cold by the beginning of December, and snow usually arrives right on schedule. In the countryside, impossibly quaint small towns look like they belong under a Christmas tree with a toy train running around them. In Vienna, we have at least a dozen Christmas markets going, and all the major streets are decorated with elaborate light displays.
In short, Christmas is a Big Deal.
Being a traditional sort of country, there are also many holiday traditions to be observed in Austria. One visits the markets to shop for gifts and drink hot gluhwein. One eats roasted chestnuts, deep-fried potatoes, giant donuts, and kipferl, the little crescent-shaped cookies dipped in powdered sugar. One lights candles set in an Advent wreath on each of the four Sundays before Christmas.
Children eagerly await the Christ child, who will bring them gifts on Christmas Eve. But first, they must pass a test. On Saint Nicholas’ Eve (December 5), they are visited by Saint Nicholas (as in the original, dressed as a bishop, not Santa Claus, the jolly old elf), and Krampus, who plays bad cop. The children are questioned as to whether they have been good. If they have been, St Nick gives them candy and oranges. If they have not, Krampus beats the living daylights out of them with birch switches and chains. Nice.
Krampus is a really interesting character. I thought he might be some kind of pagan throwback, and indeed he is. Ancient European legends often feature a satyr-like creature who is a mix of horned goat and man. The sexual implications are rather obvious, and confirmed by his birch switches, which were used in pagan coming-of-age rites. In fact, when we lived in nearby Prague, it was the tradition for young men to go around switching girls with birch or pussy willow branches on Easter, the original pagan fertility festival. So, there you go.
Supposedly, in pre-Christian days, young men would go off into the woods in Alpine countries at puberty and come back in their goat-man kit to show their new masculinity. Scaring village children was also part of the ritual. The Catholic church attempted to suppress these naughty behaviors, but in remote villages, the tradition survived, as these things often do, to later get mixed up with the feast of Saint Nicholas.
In modern Austria and surrounding countries, Krampus has become a pop culture figure, featured on greeting cards and gift bags, and represented in chocolate, marzipan, dried fruit, and stuffed-animal form. He even has his own website. You can buy a candy Krampus at any supermarket checkout at this time of year to remind your little cherubs to behave themselves. Or else.
Many towns and cities also have a Krampuslauf, or Krampus walk, in which performers dressed as demons run around with chains, whips, and baskets to put naughty children in to take them to Hell. These are not cartoon devils with cute little trident tails. Krampus walkers take the custom very seriously and aim to scare the bejeezus out of everyone.
According to Wikipedia, “there has been public debate in Austria in modern times about whether Krampus is appropriate for children.” Hmm, do you think?
I haven’t made it to a Krampuslauf yet, but I certainly intend to. Meanwhile, I’ve been snapping photos of the evil dude as I see him around town.
By the way, don’t assume you are safe if you live in the US. Some American communities with origins in this part of the world have apparently been reviving the custom. There is a Facebook page for Americans Who Love Krampus. Heck, Krampus even visited Stephen Colbert a while back. So, be good, folks. Or else!