A century-old tradition
Half goat, half demon, devil horns, hairy, cloven hooves, bloodshot eyes, a long red tongue, fangs and rusty chains. Naughty children in Austria and Bavaria have every reason to fear the night before St. Nicholas’ Day- the Krampus Night. According to the century-old tradition, which is believed to date back to pre-Christian paganism, St. Nicholas and his scary counterpart Krampus visit houses all night on 5th December. While St. Nicholas rewards well-behaved children with sweets, fruit and nuts, Krampus punishes misbehaved children by beating them with birch branches. Legend has it that he stuffs particularly bad kids into his sack to take them away to his lair – a story not uncommonly told by parents to scare their children into being good. The tradition is closely connected with the 1,500 year-old ritual of Perchten, where people in elaborate Krampus costumes run through the streets in early January to disperse the ghosts of winter.
Popularity across the pond
For a long time only recognised in Europe’s Alpine regions, the story of Krampus is now widely known around the world. This was thanks in no small part to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, and the 2015 US comedy-horror film “Krampus” (which, however, gives a very inaccurate and poorly researched depiction of Krampus for the sake of entertainment). Especially in Northern America the Krampus tradition has gained popularity, with cities like San Francisco and Florida holding annual Krampus night celebrations. People in the US see it as a refreshing alternative to the overly commercial, cheer-filled version of Christmas, and as an attempt to re-engage with a darker, pagan tradition.
Experiencing the Krampus tradition nowadays
While the US is only starting to discover the Krampus tradition, the practice becomes more and more commercialised in Europe. What used to be a big part of mainly Austria’s and Bavaria’s intangible heritage has, like many folk traditions (best example: Christmas), fallen victim to consumer culture. Chocolates, decorations, greeting cards and costumes in the Krampus theme are as readily available as those of his saintly companion. The tradition of Perchten has deviated from its original purpose and become more of a tourist attraction celebrated along with Krampus night in the Christmas season. At the Krampuslauf (“Krampus run”), how it is called nowadays, participants, wearing terrifying costumes, cow bells and carrying birch branches, try to frighten onlookers – who are mainly grownups– and chase them through the streets. Nowadays, Krampus runs can also be found in countries like Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary. Also, it has become more common for Krampuses to gift children birch branches or leave coal in their shoes as a sign of their bad behaviour instead of physically punishing them, since parents and parenting experts became increasingly concerned that the beating experience might scar them for life. Even kindergardens and schools more rarely invite Krampus along with St. Nicholas, as they do not want to scare the children. Therefore, some say that Krampus may be losing his edge. Others are afraid that people will forget about the tradition’s history.
The fact that Krampus is being commercialised cannot be denied, but there will always be communities, like church communities or little villages, where the roots und rites of the tradition are preserved and kept alive. The question whether or not Krampus is losing his edge is something everybody has to answer for themselves. Undoubtedly, it is important that a country takes measures to preserve its culture and heritage, which includes encouraging people to engage with their country’s own customs and traditions. However, the decision of how parents pass on the Krampus tradition to their children should be up to them. Times change, and so does the idea of good parenting.
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Fig1: reuters/dominic ebenbichler https://derstandard.at/2000067700135/Perchten-Lebendiges-Brauchtum-oder-Aggression-im-Schutz-der-Maske