About This Festival
"You better watch out." Those are the semi-ominous lyrics that begin "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but let's have some real talk: is anyone scared of a jolly grandpa with a pot belly, pink cheeks and a weakness for cookies?
How about a devil with flaming coals for eyes, matted fur and twisting stag horns who slaps people with birch twigs and kidnaps children in a large sack or casket so he can later drown or eat them?
Now we're talking. And specifically, we're talking about Krampus: a bestial demon of debatable historic origin who haunts Central Europe in December, and particularly during the Krampusnacht festival. Some say Krampus is a holdover from pre-Christian pagan nature spirits turned into a devil by the Catholic Church. Some say he's always been a devil, as evidenced by his rusty chains and shackles, symbols of his escape from Hell.
Whatever the case may be, Krampus plays second fiddle and assistant to St. Nicholas—you probably know him as Santa Claus—during the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6). The hairy fiend threatens to beat naughty children with bundles of ruten, or birch twigs, or stow them away in a sack even as St. Nick rewards nice kids with presents. Gifts or human trafficking: Christmas does not play around in the Alps.
Cozying up for Christmas, and Krampusnacht
In Austria, Bavaria (Germany), South Tyrol (Italy), Slovenia, Croatia and parts of Hungary, the Feast of St. Nicholas is usually celebrated with Christmas pageants and parades; the latter include crowds of young men dressed as Krampus, which is where the term Krampusnacht (Krampus night) derives from.
Yet Austria is where Krampus celebrations evolve from village parade to full on festival. Austria is where Krampus is so popular, psychologists and schools are considering banning the creature because it's so ubiquitous and scary to children. Austria is where a Krampus Museum can be found in the town of Suetschach. And 14 miles away, in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, about equidistant between Innsbruck and Vienna, is where you'll find the largest Krampus celebration in the world.
The big event is not technically Krampusnacht, although the Feast of St. Nicholas and Christmas in general are a big deal in Klagenfurt. It's not hard to see why. The town—nested in an alpine valley, with a pedestrian-oriented center of renaissance era buildings, colonnades and covered arcades—seems to have been plucked off the cover of a Christmas card. Throw in a ridiculously cute and atmospheric outdoor Christmas Market that lasts through December and you've got a town bleeding holiday cheer.
Anyways, Klagenfurt does host an enormous Feast of St. Nicholas parade near the Alter Platz (old square) that features screaming Krampuses (or Krampi?). But if you're truly into Krampus, come during the preceding weeks for the Krampuslauf: the Krampus run.
Brace Yourselves - the Krampuslauf is Coming
Numbers vary, but an estimated 1,000 Krampi, the largest concentration in the world, descend upon Klagenfurt for a parade through the streets that eventually morphs into a party. Those who dress as Krampus tend to be men in their teens and twenties, and as is the wont of the universe, when large groups of men in their teens and twenties get dressed up, they tend to get drunk.
There's a pagan spirituality element to the equation too; while some Krampi are having fun, others reference pre-Christian traditions of spiritual possession via the usage of mind-altering substances. Which is a nice way to say: some Krampus get crazy on the Krampuslauf. During the after party, expect to hear Black Metal; it's a popular in the area, and the mix of thrashy songs, pagan references, demon/devil iconography and general strutting machismo makes for a natural auditory backdrop to the Krampus crowd.
That said, the Krampuslauf isn't all boozy, demon-clad testosterone time. Many treat the event as a costume contest, and the quality of some Krampus outfits is pretty amazing. In addition, many women take to the streets dressed as Perchta, a pagan goddess of Germanic origin; as a result, a Perchtenlauf (Perchta run) is now a standard component of the Krampuslauf.
Many of those who take the pre-Christian origins of the event seriously do their best to evoke the fear Krampus originally inspired, and it wouldn't be hyperbole to say that for them, the Krampuslauf takes on mystical, and even religious overtones. For these runners, Krampus is the dark counterpart to the gemütlichkeit Christmas evokes. Gemütlichkeitis a hard word to translate, but it encompasses both coziness and conviviality, whereas Krampus is the other half of the winter solstice: darkness, cold, and snowy fir forests where branches snap and things go bump in the frozen night.