Christmas may be jolly in North America, but in the folklore of the Austrian Alps, a 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 now one of Europe's most popular festivals.
Villagers of old believed that Krampus—and his army of ill-tempered elves—roamed the Tyrolean mountains, causing overall mayhem.
They 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. Krampus, the Enforcer.
As the centuries passed, Christianity supplanted paganism. A mew 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.
What Is the Krampus Legend?
Locals give 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. Children still had something to fear.
Modern Tyroleans have found a place for Krampus as a glamorous anti-hero, like so many of our god-and-goddess celebrities.
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 perchten—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, this 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. Many of Alpine Austria’s Krampus Parades take place on St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) or St. Nicholas Day (December 6).
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).
Here’s how and where to unleash your inner Krampus in Austria... and abroad.
What to Expect From Krampus Parades
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. The marchers are scarily costumed. 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 juggle their torches. Many flick their whips or fiery torches 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, just like New Orleans’ krewes do for their Mardi Gras Parade.
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 getup cover a carved wooden mask and horns, lupine fangs, red contact lenses, fur-hide tunic and pants. Oh, and let's not forget your hooves. The best way to enjoy the Krampus parade is to watch it from the sidelines.
How to Take In the Krampus 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 Parade spectators 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 your hotel or Airbnb; 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.
And don't forget to eat! Expect fresh-baked stollen Christmas spice cake; vanillekipferl nut-flour cookies; kiachln doughnuts; spatzln dumplings; hot fortified Glühwein; and schnapps high-proof fruit brandy.
When and Where to Catch the Krampus Parade in Austria
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 are have fallen under the spell of Krampus arrange their visits to catch the two parade nights in two different Tyrolean towns.
Find many 2017 Tyrolean Krampuslauf (Krampus Parade) dates here. A few of the more notable celebrations notable amongst them:
• Salzburg (Dec. 1 and Dec. 2)
• Innsbruck's neighboring village of Axams (Dec. 5)
• Ischgl (Dec. 5)
The closest international air travel hub is Munich in southern German’s Bavaria. Munich is under two hours by train to the Tirol's Krampus-crazed Kitzbuhel or Salzburg, and you can book a connecting flight to your destination in the Tirol. Nonstop flights to Munich take off from all major North American air travel gateways plus Denver, Detroit, Fort Myers, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. In Munich, you can connect to a flight to your Krampus Parade destination in the Tirol or take a train, around two and a half hours.
Alternatively, Tirol visitors can change planes in London or Frankfurt to land in Innsbruck, the Tirol's biggest town, and then take ground transportation to their Krampus village (or stay in or near Innsbruck).
Pre-holiday is not high season in the Austrian Alps’ ski-happy Tyrol region. More good news: the Tyrol is packed with an abundance of places to roost. These include hostels on village back streets, ski-bum inns with bunk beds and quads, elite health resorts on the mountain, and cutting-edge Tyrolean design hotels. And like most of Western Europe, the Tyrol is a hotbed of Airbnb accommodations.
Participate in a Krampus Parade or Party in the U.S. or Canada
Americans and Canadians can get a spooky taste of Krampus on this side of the Alps. Horns and hooves are not mandatory.
• Bloomington, Indiana: Krampus Rampage (Dec. 2, 2017)
• Charlotte, North Carolina: NoDa Krampus Krawl (Dec. 9, 2017)
• Chicago: Martyrs’ Krampus Fest costume party and market (Dec. 2, 2017)
• Dallas: Krampus Society’s Krampus Night Walk 2017 (Dec. 2, 2017)
• Detroit: Krampus Night (Dec. 1, 2017)
• Edmonton, Alberta: Krampusnacht Edmonton (Dec. 5, 2017)
• Los Angeles: Krampuslauf Run and After-Party (Dec. 14, 2017)
• Portland, Oregon: Krampus Lauf PDX (Krampus Parade on Dec.10, 2017)
• Philadelphia: Kampuslauf Parade of Spirits (Dec. 9, 2017)
• San Diego: Krampus talk and “visit,” New Americans Museum (Dec. 5, 2017)
• San Francisco: Presidio 5K & 10K Cross-Country Krampus Runs and Pre-Race Brewfest (Dec. 8, 2017)
• Toronto, Ontario: Krampus Ball costume party (Dec. 8, 2017)
• Washington, D.C.: Krampusnacht D.C. Party (Dec. 2, 2017)