Christmas may be jolly in North America, but in the Austrian Alps, a bonafide Bad Santa takes the stage every year. This fearsome character’s name is Krampus: a half-man, half-goat demon whose legend has been around since pagan times, and whose Krampus Parade is one of Europe's most popular festivals.
Villagers of old believed that Krampus and his perchten (army of ill-tempered elves) roamed the Tyrolean mountains of the Alps, causing overall mayhem. The elves took particular delight in whipping lazy folks, unruly youngsters, and drunks. Sometimes Krampus abducted miscreants altogether. Parents scared disobedient kids into better behavior by warning them that Krampus was coming for them.
As the centuries passed, Christianity supplanted paganism and a new legend bloomed: the kind, benevolent Saint Nicholas, now known as Santa Claus. Yet in the Tyrol, isolated villagers held onto their pagan myths, and nasty old Krampus didn’t disappear. Instead, locals gave Krampus a new, supporting role, now considering him Krampus St. Nick’s sidekick.
As more or less Santa’s evil twin, Krampus accompanied the ho-ho-hoer on his merry sleigh-borne rounds. The two mythical figures acted like good cop, bad cop: Santa gifted the nice kids, and Krampus punished the naughty ones.
Modern Tyroleans have found a place for Krampus as a glamorous anti-hero. In the Tyrol, the half-wolf, half-demon is a star: a daringly dressed rebel who appeals to (and maybe speaks for) our wild side. Krampus also personifies a defiant attitude toward the profound commercialism of Santa Claus.
Today's Tyroleans honor Krampus and his mischievous elfin helpers with thronged annual events. From November through Epiphany (12 days after Christmas), dozens of cities, towns, and villages celebrate the rowdy spirit of Krampus. Young men, especially, fall under his spell and populate the cult of Krampus.
The central event of the Tyrol’s annual Krampus mania is the Krampuslauf. This translates to Krampus Run but is now usually referred to in English as the Krampus Parade. In centuries past, the wintertime happening was a race in which entrants tried to outpace a runner dressed as Krampus. The spirited tradition held that entrants were supposed to be drunk so that Krampus would want to catch them.
Dozens of Krampus Festivals animate Austria. The central event is always the Krampus Parade, a spectacular nocturnal procession of terrifyingly clad Krampus figures and Perchten elves.
These thrill-fests are amongst of Europe’s most spirited festivals along the lines of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and Oktoberfest in Germany. Additional parades are held for women dressed as good-natured fairies (the Perchtenlauf) and on New Year’s Eve (the Rauhnachtenlauf).
Like Krampus himself, his namesake parade is far from sweet and tidy. The Krampus Parade is a rollicking event. It always takes place at night and the marchers are dressed in scary costumes. They resemble a cross between cavemen and Vikings, with furry costumes, demonic masks, spiraling horns, whips, and torches. Some of the marchers are acrobatic, doing flips and cartwheels. Some Krampuses juggle torches or simply flick their whips at spectators.
This festival is as big in the Tyrol as Mardi Gras is in New Orleans. In the city of Salzburg alone, over 200 parade clubs called Pässe, spend months creating parade costumes, marching formations, and party plans. It's an understatement to say that being in a Krampus Parade takes a lot of planning.
It’s possible, but expensive, for visitors to rent a Krampus costume and accessories. The basics of a Krampus costume require a carved wooden mask and horns, wolfish fangs, red contact lenses, a fur-hide tunic, and hooves.The easiest way to enjoy the Krampus Parade is to watch it from the sidelines.
Attending the Parade
A Krampus Parade attracts all ages, but this dramatic event is a particular favorite of college-age and post-collegiate locals and visitors. Krampus enthusiasts in this category will find themselves amongst like-minded company, which makes the parade, and its inevitable post-event pub crawls, inspired places to meet new friends.
During your visit to the Krampus Parade, be sure to layer up for a winter night in the Alps; keep your valuables out of reach; carry the address of where you are staying; avoid the front row of spectators away from the marchers' swirling whips; and use your common sense when it comes to what you do after the parade.
Don't forget to eat before the event. Local delicacies like fresh-baked stollen (Christmas spice cake,) vanillekipferl (nut-flour cookies), kiachln (doughnuts), and spatzln (dumplings) will be available.
Krampus events are centered in the state of Tyrol in the western Austrian Alps. The Krampuslauf, or Krampus Parade, often takes place on either St. Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5) or St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). Some visitors who have fallen under the spell of Krampus arrange their visits to catch the two parade nights in two different Tyrolean towns.
Check the local tourism website for specific dates and locations, but a few of the more notable celebrations take place in early December in Salzburg, the neighboring village of Innsbruck, and the town of Ischgl.
The closest international air travel hub is the Munich, which is under two hours by train to Kitzbuhel or Salzburg. Alternatively, Tyrol visitors can change planes in London or Frankfurt to land in Innsbruck, the region's largest city, and then take ground transportation to their Krampus village.