Cramping Krampus

On honoring the things that remain, no matter how terrifying

Of all the unusual holiday traditions in German-speaking Europe, the ritual highlighting St. Nicholas's sidekick Krampus may very well be the one most difficult to explain.

Krampus itself is a terrifying, larger-than-life figure. An anthropomorphized demon covered in goat’s fur and with a head (and, in some renderings, legs) like a goat, this indescribable demon -- its sharp teeth, possessed eyes, and two horns jutting out of its head combines many of the biblical attributes assigned to evil -- has walked upright through rural Alpine villages at St. Nick's side every December 5 for centuries. Or so the oral tellings go.

Even in this year that was unlike any other, Krampus carried on with its meanderings in towns high in the Austrian Alps. A blizzard dumped over a meter of snow, avalanche warnings were in effect, yet Krampus shook its bells and plodded through the snow at St. Nick's side in a pared-down parade. Pandemic restrictions meant people were resigned to watching from behind their windows as these creatures made their way through the towns in a nod to retaining ritual. Normally, Krampus appears as part of an Everyman, a morality play that uses allegorical figures to address questions about Christian salvation according to Catholicism.

In Öblarn, Austria, the annual Krampus play captures the legend at the end of this journey with a performance in its baroque town center; more traditionally, in other villages, the Krampus reenactment takes place in a barn, with local townspeople huddling into the makeshift theater as a nod to the days when these plays, along with Catholicism, were still forbidden.

Although the pictures we often see of these rituals stem from the Krampus rampage around Munich's Christmas markets, those in this newsletter are from the Öblarner Krampusspiel. One of the last surviving Styrian folk theater traditions, this rendition was recognized by Austria's UNESCO body for its work preserving a local history. As the Krampus story changes in every locale, embedded in each retelling is the history of the area itself. Text and content adaptations have been made over time to reflect shifts in religious and moral instructions. The play, packaged as entertainment with bits of terror and bits of humor, is a pious presentation of religious beliefs about the triumph of good over evil, the terrors wrought by temptation.

And it is one whose story makes little sense to outsiders and non-believers. Led by a group of whip-cracking straw figures known as the Schab, the actors are soon followed by hunters who ask the permission of the farmhouse occupants to perform. The Krampus arrives, joined by Lucifer himself, among others. Summer and Winter are there, as is death and the forest and mountain spirits. In the end, St. Nicholas arrives, a bishop with crozier and mitre, there to distribute treats and lighten the mood.

The references to the spirits residing in the natural world feel familiar as a Hayao Miyazaki film, with a nod to the intertwining of the ancestors and the Alpine environment. Yet the story itself takes up where Goethe's Faust left off, perhaps another part of the spiritual dialogue at work at the time of its inception.

Boiling down a centuries-old legend to its bare bits (as I've done here), is revelatory. Seeing Krampus as a creature, a costume, sends shivers down my back; my first impression upon hearing of it was one of disdain. Whoever would take a holiday tradition and use it to terrorize children in this way? Yet by breaking down the story, I realized that it's not all that different from the rest of the Christian mythology behind Christmas:

When carols are sung about someone making a list and checking it twice to see who's naughty or nice, there's a suggestion of morality at work. When we tell children to be careful or they'll get a lump of coal in their stocking, we're alluding to the Krampus tradition of denying children their treats for being naughty. And those bells that are said to signal Santa's arrival on the rooftops sound quite similar to those that shake as Krampus comes down the street.

While the holiday itself has shifted in meaning over time, its rituals remain to be passed on among generations, adapted and adjusted to the time at hand. Perhaps that is why I felt my attitude toward Krampus shift this year. Why it felt so unusually meaningful this year to see so many Instagram stories of Krampus still trotting through the snow. To see this nod to a centuries’ old tradition while stuck inside. While bearing witness to what feels, at times, like an outdated morality play, one which we are living through in real time.