I never wrote about Christmas properly, and that is a shame. It would have felt out of place in the midst of my “Epic” posts, but it’s well worth recording. So it goes here now. Three months late.
Despite both being grounded in the Christian religion (obviously) there’s a fairly significant difference in folklore between Austrian and American Christmases. As you may/probably know, American Christmas is largely driven by Santa. We also talk about this Jesus fellow, but for the most part, he doesn’t play a driving force within the holiday. That is to say, he doesn’t have do anything. We celebrate his birthday and he just gets to hang out. Santa’s the one who has to travel all over the world in one night.
In contrast, the Austrian Christmas season is driven by three major figures – St. Nikolas, Krampus, and Der Christkind (the Christ-child). Technically, St. Nikolas and Krampus are part of a holiday entirely separate from Christmas that takes place on December 6th, appropriately named St Nikolas Day, which kind of serves as a kick off of the season.
The celebration of St. Nikolas will probably sound at least vaguely familiar to most of my American readers. Kids put their shoes/boots outside the door. If you’ve been good, St. Nikolas comes by in the night and drops toys and candy into them during the night. This part of things is celebrated in a fairly wide scale throughout Europe. What’s uniquely Austrian is Nikolas’s buddy, Krampus. While it’s technically St. Nikolas’s day, Krampus rules the night.
Krampus was first introduced to me by a German professor who had grown up in Austria. In his town, two men – one dressed as Nikolas, one as Krampus – would go door to door and ask if the children in that home had been good or bad. When they came to his door, he recalled clinging to his mother and begging her to say that he was good. Why?
Because if you’re bad, Krampus, who looks like a demon and travels in a pack, kidnaps you in a burlap sack and takes you to the forest and beats you with chains.
In our town, Krampus is celebrated in what’s called a Krampuslauf, a parade which happens on the evening of the 4th. The tradition and effort behind these events is a little staggering. Larger towns will each have their own, while smaller towns (like Oberalm) will band together with neighboring islets to host theirs.
Our decision to go to the lauf was made a bit late in the game. My host family had been living in Germany until earlier that year and so had never been to a Krampuslauf before. Lena desperately wanted to go, so plans had been made for she and I to go with her neighborhood friend Amina and her Julia. But, when the day actually came, Hannah refused to be left home and where Lena AND Hannah go, so goes Kilian (or so he likes to insist, in much simpler language). Anna was hesitant to bring Kilian, since she had heard that some of the marches actually got fairly violent. The neighbors pooh-poohed these worries, since traditionally the Oberalm marchers would stay within the parade route. When they heard that Anna had never actually been to a march before, they became even more insistent we all come. So we went, Kilian perched on Anna’s shoulders and Hannah, Lena, and Amina skittering excitedly ahead of us.
When we arrived, it was already dark and the crowd was building and sipping on hot gluehwein while horn music played from one of the adjacent houses. We ran into another family from the neighborhood and joined up with them. The air was thick with anticipation and the crowd was threaded with teenagers who pushed eagerly pushed to the front and then shoved each other into the No Man’s Land that the street had become. Despite my height (more specifically, my lack thereof), I was advised to stay back a bit, as that would ensure that the Krampii would leave me alone.
Then the horn music quieted and we were left in silence. Down the street on our left, flashes of light and smoke started going up from a source we were still too far off to identify and rock music filled the air the Christmas horns had vacated. One of the teenage girls shrieked and Lena gasped and grabbed Amina’s hand. Hannah pressed herself against me.
When the first two Krampuses came around the corner, I was amazed. The costume fully encased the person within in fur and wax to the point that you doubted there was anyone underneath. Chains clanked around their feet, and tiny glaring eyes were lit within their demonic masks. Horns curled up out of their foreheads and they stalked up the street with clubbing sticks in hand. The costume creation went much further than simple hobby. These are works of art that years have been spent on – all built in a garage and kept hidden until this one night.
As I said before, the Oberalm marchers normally stick to the route and only hassle those at the front of the crowd. If they move in any further, it’s only to harass their friends. But on this particular year, the magical 4th wall was broken and at an unknown signal the Krampuses began to push through the crowd, shoving bystanders indiscriminately out of the way to get to the children. They crept around the children, crouched down to look them in the eyes, and stroked their foreheads with one long, hairy finger before moving on, indicating the child in question passed the test of “goodness” required to sleep safely that night.
Lena and Amina took this in stride after their innocence was confirmed, moving from fear to the pleasure of adrenaline rush in seconds. Hannah clung to me and stared silent with massive eyes. Kilian… lost his mind. No amount of reassurance would calm him and he clung to the nearest known male (Gerd was out of town) while shrieking his head off and we were too deeply embedded in the crowd to move out. To their credit, the Krampuses tried to show they meant no harm once they saw his reaction, but he wasn’t buying it.
So, I know there’s likely to be some judgement of the encouragement of our neighbors and our final decision to bring a toddler to a demon parade. But Kilian was not the only child his age in the crowd. Most reacted in a MUCH calmer manner – many even showed outright joy and awe. I think now that the difference between Kilian’s reaction and the other similarly-aged-children’s is that they had been primed for this experience. It fit in the context of a story that they knew well. Because we were outsiders, the story of Krampus wasn’t a part of Kilian’s life and he didn’t understand that he would come out safely on the other side.
Probably something we should have considered. But we didn’t. It was a mistake on our part and, don’t worry, he got us back for it. Poor little dude had nightmares for the next week or two and made sure that we knew about every single one of them.
Can you blame him?