Frightening and magical, Austria’s traditional winter demons usher in the season.
It is cold and dark. It’s November 24, and I have been waiting in the bitter cold behind metallic fences for more than an hour.
Many others, both children and adults, wait for the Krampuslauf (Krampus parade) to start. Some are drinking Punsch, and everyone appears excited. I have seen pictures of the Krampus, but I don’t know what to expect. The streetlights shed only dim light. A few snowflakes complete the picture.
The clock strikes eight, and there is silence. For minutes, nothing happens. Everybody is whispering.
Then a drum breaks the silence. A red light looms down the street. Long, horn-like shadows are cast on the buildings. There is fire, and figures move among it. They are pulling the fire. Some spit fire.
They have horns and tails and are covered in fur. And they smell. Summoned from the depths of the mountains and the forests, the ancient beasts have come into the modern world.
I was there with my girlfriend who first told me about the Krampus. Evoking childhood memories, she explained to me how naughty children would be beaten by this primal demon. It was frightening, but also magical, ushering in the Christmas season.
It’s a very old tradition, most likely pre-Christian, when alpine men dressed in animal horns, bones and skins and danced around a bonfire to scare the winter demons, and guarantee a good harvest. Fearing the winter dark, men became beasts.
For centuries, the Church tried to eliminate the tradition, but by the 17th century, pragmatism overcame fear, and the Krampus was linked to Saint Nicholas. Forbidden under the Austro-fascist regime (1934-38), Krampus is now back.
From the shadows, the first Krampus passes by without noticing my presence. Two beasts follow suit. They all bear iron chains and whips made out of long weeds. The clanking and cracking is very real. Some carry torches.
They run wild, chasing people, hitting them, snarling at them. A few are captive in cages, probably the wilder ones. Some children cry. Many adults look scared to death. Some Krampus get too close to the fence, stroking young girls with their claws.
Of course I know it’s a costume. I know it’s not real. And sometimes, I can glimpse human eyes behind the mask. But I cannot help looking into the dead face of the beast. The spell is cast.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of them approaching, very fast, cracking its whip. It is hunting me. I try to move backwards, but there are too many people. The whip cracks against the fence, and the noise shakes me to the bone.
An animal-like pungent smell wraps it all. Horns, fur, sweat, the noise of the chains and the drums and the whip cracking against the fence, all send fear down my spine. The Krampus looks into my eyes… I hide behind the camera and start shooting pictures. He moves on.
Recently, these parades have becoming more and more popular, locals say, especially in the Alps – in Schladming, Schärding, Ebensee, Sankt Peter, Baden bei Wien… as well as elsewhere in Central Europe.
Even in a world of technology, harvest and solstice festivals are still rooted deep inside us, the fear and the magic that go hand in hand with the Krampus.