My previous post got a lot of readers from Austria. Grüß Gott! If anyone has been a krampus, at the Bad Goisern event or elsewhere, would you be interested in doing an interview (in English)? If so, please email me at modern.questing -at- gmail.com. I will send you a few questions, you can choose whichever you would like to answer, and send me back your responses via email. I will publish them in a separate post, as I think it would be really interesting to hear about an event like this from the krampus side. Danke!
As I mentioned in Part 1, nothing could have quite prepared me for the experience of attending Bad Goisern krampuslauf. I had seen pictures and YouTube videos of similar events, but being there in person was something completely different. This was officially one of the craziest things I have ever seen in my life.
Actually, “seen” doesn’t quite capture it. Within a few hours I would stumble back to my hotel room — bruised, disheveled, and covered in some unidentified sticky black substance — sputtering, “What the ****, Austria? What the ****.”
(I mean that in the best possible way. I would go again and highly recommend it to anyone looking for the krampus experience of a lifetime!)
It started at 7 pm. Loud apocalyptic music began to blare over the loudspeakers, punctuated by announcements shouted in German. Towering smoke and flashing red lights appeared from around the corner of the marktplatz.
Strobe lights flashed red and white through the gloom, out of which emerged the krampusse, marching with fiery torches, glowing eyes, and ram’s horns sometimes as tall as the adult humans beneath them.
There were smoke bombs. Lots of smoke bombs. With smoke that towered above the giant Christmas tree, two or three stories high, and billowed into the crowd, causing a fair amount of coughing and choking. Every minute or two. For the full two and a half hours.
There was fire. Lots of fire.
There were flames leaping from full-sized metal waste bins and random metal pans, getting dragged down the street on chains by the krampusse.
There were double decker floats, festively decorated with evergreen boughs. Krampusse riding them would growl and rattle the sides and leer down at the audience.
Once or twice a float had a krampus dangling from the front, swinging wildly from side to side. They resembled hanged people, but more grotesque. At first I thought these might be just costumes but on closer inspection there were clearly humans inside.
But most of the krampusse were on foot.
They clanked around with their noisy cowbells by the hundreds. They launched themselves into the crowd, growling and tearing away the barriers.
They got in people’s faces, towering over their quarry, who were forced to shrink back, laughing maybe a little too heartily.
Those wicker baskets? They’re for kidnapping naughty children and carrying them away.
Many krampusse had bundles of birch branches. A couple just had big fat sticks, actual tree branches a few inches thick. They’d lock onto someone from the audience, charge across the square, throw themselves over the barriers, and not rest until they’d given their target a good thrashing.
Some would swat playfully at people’s legs, but others were out for blood and delivered vicious hits.
Which hurt. Actually hurt. If I were the sort of person who bruised easily, my legs would have been covered with them next morning.
They stole hats and glasses. And gave them back most of time.
There was a period when about a krampus a minute tried to steal my hat — a perfectly ordinary grey knit hat — or pushed it into my head and vigorously mussed up my hair, much to the sympathetic amusement of the crowd around me.
Who of course were suffering similar fates. Especially the poor kid next to me with the glasses.
I’d say our mood was one of amused solidarity, even though they were all speaking German and I was stuck with English.
I eventually had to take off the hat for about an hour, despite the freezing cold. It was attracting too many attacks. And I was legitimately afraid it might be stolen and not returned. I’d seen that almost happen to others. It was a borrowed hat.
The kids in the crowd were hardly spared. Some of the krampusse who went after them would quickly back off and settle for a high-five. But others wouldn’t.
Quite a few went straight for the young ladies, backing off only after they’d gotten a satisfactory hug.
The firemen did their best to keep the krampusse in line, sometimes intervening to pull them off a victim and shove them on down the parade route. A function filled at other times by folks from the krampusse’s hometowns who were marching alongside them, without costume, possibly for exactly this purpose.
Some firemen came and went, but we had a dedicated one who stayed by our section. And worked tirelessly through the night to keep the krampusse who attacked us from going too far.
I think the krampusse had been given instructions not to go for phones and cameras, because they did leave those alone. And not to hit above the legs. But if they’d been told not to tear away the barriers that stood between them and the audience, many ignored this completely. This seemed to annoy the firemen more than anything else, as they kept angrily throwing off krampusse to fit the barriers back into place.
Krampusse weren’t the only creatures out that night. There were angels, demons, and every other bizarre fairytale character that might have hobbled out of the ancient forests of German-speaking lands to inspire the Brothers Grimm.
While krampusse seemed to be predominantly male, the women did have plenty of options.
There were angels:
And, the best in my opinion, female demons. Often with skulls cracked open and blood pouring from them.
I thought at the time that they were called perchten, but I could have my terminology wrong here.
There were black-shrouded figures of Death carrying scythes:
One of whom even had a scythe that was on fire. Because, you know. Christmas.
There were a few more kinder-krampusse, this time marching alongside parental krampusse.
There were also a handful of elderly krampusse, shuffling along with canes or walkers. Gentlemen, I supposed, who had been doing the krampus thing all their lives and had no intention of stopping now.
Some of the more theatrical krampusse threw themselves down on the street and writhed around a bit, for no apparent reason. Or wrestled some random person to the ground.
Others started scrapping with each other, hitting back and forth with the birch rods. Or locking arms (and horns) and wrestling until the firemen or their other guardians broke them apart.
Through all this, the occasional St. Nick in bishop’s robes would emerge serenely through the smoke bombs to hand out candy to children and remind everyone that this whole spectacle was indeed about Christmas.
And it all just kept coming. I had originally guessed that the event would last about an hour, but it ended up going two and half.
I kept looking to the far end of the market square, seeing more smoke rising above the buildings, more flashing lights, more fiery torches and rams’ horns and glowing eyes marching endlessly toward us.
The attacks that had been funny for the first half started to get a bit more wearying as the night went on. And meaner. Less playful. More painful. I suspected that the krampusse towards the back of the parade had had more time to pre-party, and we were feeling the effects.
Because I also suspected this whole thing was alcohol-fueled. Very, very alcohol fueled.
The parade did finally end. But the krampus attacks didn’t.
They got worse.
As soon as the official event was over, the firemen rapidly started removing all the barriers that had provided some protection to the audience. But the krampusse were coming back up the street, all wound up and more than ready to keep partying.
With no barriers between them and the crowd, they now had free reign. The solidarity of the people standing together and the watchful eye of the fire department were now dispersed.
It was everyone for themselves.
I’d had enough abuse for the night. I hurried back up the street towards my hotel, through the post-apocalyptic street-scape, trying to avoid any unwanted krampus attention.
But part way up the block, one of them grabbed me. He started smearing something sticky all over my face. He only got half the face but would undoubtedly have kept going if I hadn’t fought him off.
Like I said before, I got back to the hotel, slammed my door, and shook my head thinking only, “What the ****, Austria? What the ****.” Hell of a Christmas tradition you’ve got there! I’d love to see how you celebrate Easter.
(Just kidding, Austria. We’re cool.)
Looking in the mirror, it became clear that I’d been smeared with the same mysterious black stuff — vaguely reminiscent of ash from Ash Wednesday — that I’d seen covering the faces of others in the audience.
I hadn’t realized at the time why they looked like that. Now I understood.
At least it washed off pretty easily.
I’m not at all sorry that this was a bizarre, painful, and sometimes frightening experience! That’s what I came for: the krampus. That’s exactly what the krampus was supposed to be.
I hadn’t expected the event to be quite so, um … immersive. But once I’d regained the safety of my room, I decided anything tamer and more sanitized would have been a disappointment.
I loved this weird, dark take on Christmas that could only be found in the remote mountain regions of Austria. I loved that even in Germany and the nearest Austrian cities, it wasn’t widely known.
I spent two and a half weeks hunting Old World Christmas spirit across England, Austria, Germany, and The Netherlands. This was the event that really, really stood out. The one I would never find anything else like, anywhere else on the globe. The one I rushed back to tell stories about to anyone who would listen. The one I will remember for the rest of my life.
And the one that ensured I would never look at the Christmas season quite the same way, ever again!
That’s the end of the story, but I do have more pictures!