My first encounter with Krampus in Austria took place at a local grocery store. I was searching for some chocolate snacks for December 6th (which is St. Nicolas’ Day unlike the actual Christmas Day) and came upon an unusual package containing two chocolate figurines. One of the figurines was St.Nicolas (Nikolo) and the other one was, what seemed to be, a devilish-looking monster. I was intrigued – I saw chocolate angels before, but why would anyone sell chocolate devils?
I decided to do a little bit of research and headed over to Salzburg’s Christmas Museum (yes, they do have such a thing as a Christmas Museum over here), where I saw a pretty informative exhibition about this Krampus character. I thought it was extremely interesting from both historical and cultural perspectives, as it was definitely something unique to the place that I am calling home for the time being.
As some of you already know, St. Nicolas was a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey sometime around the 4th century. By the way, this is why he is often represented with crosier, book, pallium and mitre (typical bishop equipment). Starting in the 16th century, St. Nicolas became frequently represented in the Tauern-Alpine region alongside a scary, demon-like figure. The companion of the saintly bishop has many different names (depending on the region): Krampus, Perchten, Buttnmandl, Klausen, Klaubauf, Knecht Ruprecht.
So what does Krampus do? Well, to answer that, let’s see what happens on December 6th. In many traditions (also in Poland), it is a day of gift giving. That’s when St. Nicolas visits good children and brings them apples, nuts and gingerbread (at least according to tradition… I used to get chocolate and CDs as a kid, but only if I cleaned my shoes the night before). Krampus embodies the castigatory authority with a rattling chain, birch and pitchfork. He is punishing misbehaving kids by supplying them with coal and the ruten bundles.
Krampus had a strong pedagogic mission – it literally scared kids enough to make them behave nicely. In some traditions, Krampus was thought to actually take away (kidnap) misbehaving children… I honestly can believe this is why Germans and Austrians are so hard working – after so many years of being scared of Krampus, the proper behavior perhaps became a part of normal life 🙂
The Krampus fad was developed in Vienna around 1900. With time, Krampus lost its cruel looks and transformed into a skier, sheriff, clown or music-making Hungarian.
To this day, however, in many smaller towns in the Alpine region, you can watch a Krampuslauf, where young man dressed as half goats-half demons appear on the streets. You can give the Krampus some schnapps, they won’t say no.
Watch this excellent video by New York Times about Krampuslauf in Bavaria:
Krampus is a folklore figure popular not only in Austria, but also in Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Czechia, Hungary and Northern Italy. It personally reminded me a bit of the yeti figure – I definitely see the roots of the tradition in the mountainous regions with strong agricultural and pagan influences. Thanks to Krampus, I actually started reading more about Christmas traditions in Alpine regions and I happily discovered a lot of the aspects of the holiday that I was completely unaware of. So, thanks chocolate Krampus for that!