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The Devilish Counterpart to Good St. Nicholas Celebrates a Comeback

- Forgotten custom with a centuries-old tradition lives on again in parts of southern Germany and Austria
- Krampus as a counterpart to St. Nicholas punishes the wicked
- Krampus Runs enjoys increasing popularity

They startle and intrigue at the same time, but just as with the Easter Bunny or the Christ Child, they belong to Catholic pagan tradition: Krampus or Kramperl, as these frightening figures are called in southern Germany and Austria. The wild and evil Krampus has been estimated to serve as a companion to good Bishop Nicholas since the 15th century. While „Nick“ represents goodness and rewards obedient children every year in December with sweets and gifts, Krampus waits as an emissary of evil to scare fear into wicked souls or naughty children. However, he is always fair: Krampus follows a strict code of honor – he is only evil to those who are also evil. And he may spread terror only until Bishop Nicholas bids him to stop, because this noble sort of devil must listen to Nick’s commands. Nevertheless, this diabolical companion radiates enormous fascination.

The fundamental role of Krampus is roughly equivalent to that of Knecht Ruprecht, who accompanies St. Nicholas to the homes of families throughout central and northern German on the 6th of December and threatens naughty children with a rod. Unlike Ruprecht, who travels alone, Krampus appear in hoards. And while they have not assumed any particularly significant cultural role, Krampus can look back on a rich tradition – which has found a revival today, thanks to the commitment of an increasing number of traditional groups like the Munich Sparifankerl-Pass (Pass = group).

Among the most distinctive features of Krampus, as is known from historical illustrations, are horns and a thick fur coat, a shaggy tail, long claws on the hands, a cloven hoof, pointed ears and – especially important for the historically evolved erotic component – a long red tongue. Not infrequently he carries a basket on his back, in order to “bag” the disobedient. And while he has no reward for the “good”, he has punishment in mind for the “wicked”, which means that a rod belongs to the equipment of an Alpine Krampus.

Even if his finest hour strikes on the 6th of December: Krampus is active some time in advance – which is the reason why in some regions December 5th is called Krampus Day. Then, young men in wild fur costumes and with horrifying “larvae” – skillfully carved masks from linden, stone pine or alder wood, which weigh up to ten kilograms – run through the streets, evoking a pagan spectacle with bells on their backs and all sorts of bellowing. While in earlier centuries the Krampus enjoyed the anonymity of hitting all sorts of people and particularly young men, today the again very popular Krampus Runs are much more civilized, but still “hands-on”. In East Tyrol something known as “Kalubauf” (from “to pick something up”) focuses on throwing viewers to the ground, before they are put back on their feet.

Whether Krampus, Klaubauf or Perchte – all these figures maintain the tradition of “Stampern” (Bavarian for “to chase”): They go after young women, in order to more or less affectionately hit them with rods – here again the erotic aspect comes into play. The victims scream and shout during this treatment from wild Krampus, even though they have deliberately called for the “attacks” by behaving mischievously.

On December 6th the diabolical fiends appear together with St. Nicholas, before the custom promptly ends at midnight.

The resurrection of almost forgotten Bavarian rituals.
The group called “Sparifankerl-Pass” is successfully revitalising a historical tradition from the Alps region ...

Where can you see the Krampus and Perchten called the Sparifankerl Pass? Click more for the current list of events and performances at home and abroad ...