Hunting the Christmas Spirit: The Krampus Edition, Part 1

Edit: Part 2 is now up. It is has most of the pictures from the actual parade.


I woke up on the morning of December 7 in the tiny town of Bad Goisern, Upper Austria, feeling nervous. I had trekked out to this charming alpine village of about 7,500 people — a two-hour train ride from Austria’s fourth largest city — for a very specific event. And I wasn’t sure it was happening.

The event was a krampuslauf (German for “krampus run”). If you are not familiar with the krampus, he is a demon henchman who, according to centuries old Austrian folklore, accompanies St. Nikolaus on the eve of St. Nikolaus Day. Kindly old St. Nick hands out presents to the good children while krampus torments the naughty ones with birch rods and rusty chains.

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I’d been quite enamored with this aspect of Old World Christmas spirit ever since I’d first heard of it, on The Colbert Report in 2009. Christmas in America could sometimes feel too sanitized and commercial for my tastes, the sort of holiday where the Dudley Dursleys of the world cleaned up and the real winners were retail giants who forced their employees to work through Thanksgiving dinner.

An alternate vision — in which the good were rewarded with, let’s say, clove-stuffed oranges, while righteous hellfire rained down upon the wicked — was a welcome counterpoint.

I spent December 5, official Krampusnacht, in Salzburg, where some krampus festivities did take place. Around 5 o’clock that evening, I joined hundreds of other locals and tourists of all ages lining up along Linzergasse for a promised krampus parade.

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Next to me was an Austrian family with several small children. A girl of about seven kept slipping out through the crowd to look down the street, then shuddering with delighted fright and ducking back to hide behind her parents. At one point her brother, a couple years older, grabbed her and held her out in the street and told her the krampus was going to get her. She managed to wriggle free with a few playful shrieks and hide behind her parents again.

But forty minutes passed with no sign of krampus.

Then we heard the cowbells (the krampusse all wear them, you can hear them coming a mile away) and saw the characteristic rams’ horns over the heads of the crowd farther up the street.

But we were standing towards the bottom of the street. The krampusse turned away down a side street before reaching us.

A collective groan went up from the people all around me. Suddenly we became a mob, pressing forward to chase the tiny parade, everyone trying to catch at least a little glimpse of the krampus they’d waited so long for.

Patience and persistence were rewarded here. The parade consisted of only one Nikolaus and about a dozen krampusse, and they stopped in a small square ahead.

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Some removed their heavy masks to take a breather and I could see that, contrary to what I’d heard about krampusse usually being  teenage boys and young men, they included pre-teens of both genders and at least one woman.

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Some kept their masks on and lucky members of the crowd were able to get pictures with them.

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Eventually they all put the masks back on and clanked back up Linzergasse, pursued by the picture-taking crowd.

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Not bad, but not worth trekking all the way to Austria for St. Nikolaus Day over. I reminded myself that this was only the warm-up act. Bad Goisern krampuslauf on Monday would be the main event.

But I wasn’t entirely sure about this. I was going off a single TripAdvisor review that said the Bad Goisern parade had about 800 krampusse. I had verified on a Bad Goisern tourism page that some sort of krampuslauf would be happening on December 7 this year, but I couldn’t remember if they said how big it was.

When I mentioned this to my all-around fabulous AirBnb hostess, she had never heard of such a thing — an 800-krampus parade. Anywhere. She phoned a friend, who’d never heard of it either.

It wasn’t like she’d never heard of the krampus. She was a native Austrian. She had two sons around my age and used to take them to the Salzburg krampuslauf when they were little. They had dressed up as the krampus as teenagers. She had just never heard of the Bad Goisern event.

I started to worry a little about the reliability of my information.

Arrival in Bad Goisern did nothing to alleviate these fears. At 8 pm on December 6, the place was absolutely deserted. My hotel seemed to have exactly two other patrons, both at dinner that night and at breakfast the next morning. It hardly seemed like a town that was about to host 800+ krampusse, and presumably their families and well-wishers, in the market square later that day.

I thought about asking the hotel staff to confirm, but I didn’t want them to know that I had come all the way for a krampuslauf if no such krampuslauf was to occur. I didn’t want them laughing at or feeling bad for me. If there was no krampuslauf, or only a tiny one like in Salzburg, I wanted to slink away quietly with no locals any the wiser, pretending I’d only come to see Hallstatt — jewel of the Salzkammergut and the next town south — anyway.

I needn’t have worried. I was in for the experience of a lifetime.

I stopped at the Bad Goisern tourist office on the morning of the 7th to ask about busses to Hallstatt and confirm the krampus event that evening. The helpful woman at the desk set my mind at ease — the kinder-krampusse (the little kids) would be on at 6 pm and the große-krampusse (she made a gesture indicating these were the big ones) at 7 pm. There was also this lone flyer hanging in a corner:

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I spent the day in the utterly enchanting mountain village of Hallstatt — all icy cold air, smell of fresh wood smoke, centuries old wooden houses, tempting little stone paths and mysterious staircases to follow up and down the mountain, a swan-filled lake, pristine waterfalls and streams, a couple of dark old churches, and several busloads of east Asian tourists.

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I returned in time to get a prime viewing spot for krampus in the Bad Goisern marktplatz.

The fueurwehr (fire department) were ready:

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So were the first aid crews:

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Crowds started to gather behind the barriers a full hour before the kinder-krampusse were scheduled, and the square was soon packed. A lit up Christmas tree towered over the scene.

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I chatted with a photographer next to me who had come all the way from Vienna, but otherwise I had the distinct impression that the crowd were mainly local — by which I mean from small mountain passes all over the Salzkammergut.

Packs of teenage boys drifted up the street carrying furry suits and carved masks. They could have been any high school or college-aged (all white) sports teams from the US, except they were speaking German. Many wore “Krampuslauf 2015” sweatshirts or jackets bearing the name of their hometown. A few sported traditional Austrian hunter’s hats — think Max Detweiler in “The Sound of Music” — with the same verve with which their American counterparts would wear camouflage baseball caps.

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The festivities soon began.

A tractor rolled through, towing an ornately dressed St. Nikolaus in a flatbed. Flanked by solemn preteens bearing fiery torches, he waved majestically at the crowd.

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Then came the kinder-krampusse, to awww’s from the crowd. The youngest looked about five years old.

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The handful of little krampusse wandered back and forth around the middle of the parade route for a few minutes, some of the smaller ones steered around by parents. Then they left.

Nothing could have quite prepared me for what came next. It was a more surreal, bizarre, and sensory-overwhelming experience than I could ever have imagined, no matter how many krampus pictures and YouTube videos I had looked up beforehand.


Since this post got pretty long, I have continued the story in a Part 2. For other updates, you can follow me on Facebook and on Twitter.

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