I have a photo, printed from film, old school … my husband and I are standing in a snowstorm in the Austrian alps. The flash from the camera reflects off giant fluffy flakes. The sky behind us is black – it’s early evening, but an alpine evening, so it is dark. We are wearing big coats and big hats and big snow boots. We are surrounded by a group of Krampus, the alpine monster of the season, big shaggy horned devils who strike fear into the hearts of small children, who chase taunting teenagers down the streets of snow-globe villages, who torment tourists and locals alike.
Only we don’t look the least bit rattled. We are smiling big holiday smiles. It looks like a family portrait with our pets.
The Krampusspiel – or, as I like to call it, The Running of the Krampus – takes place every year on December 6. It’s part of a series of deep winter alpine traditions around Christmas and the solstice that acknowledge the change of the season. Three Kings come to your house and chalk your doorways, and there are little sprites that rattle around in your fireplace until you give them candy to go away, and there are runners in all white who carry beautiful lanterns and ring bells to scare away the bad spirits of the previous year.
But the Krampus has taken the spotlight. His shaggy coat, his massive size, his devil’s face, and his swinging broomstick, have captured the collective imagination, perhaps targeting the same people that like slasher movies. Krampus parades take over the streets of popular ski villages in Austria (and some parts of Bavaria) in a pageant of Alien meets Satan. Removed from the context of all those winter traditions, the Krampus is now the star in a winter nightmare of swinging chains, of orcs set free from Middle Earth, of underworld creatures released from the pits of hell.Every year we read at least one story of a tourist absolutely terrorized by an out of control Krampus at a Krampusspiel. And every year we have to wade through a swamp of nostalgia and annoyance. These are not our Krampus’, they are not the Krampus my Austrian husband grew up with, they are not the Krampus he dressed up as when he was in his twenties. They are not the Krampus in our family portrait.
I was utterly enchanted with the Krampus the first time I saw him. He was in the hallway of our apartment building. I heard him before I saw him; he wore giant cowbells and rattled through the streets in the dark. I opened the door and he was standing there, filling the stairwell, while the neighbor’s kids stood silent, wide eyed in wonder. They looked tiny, awestruck, but not afraid. I’m quite sure if they’d looked up, past the shaggy monster’s waist, they’d have seen their expressions reflected on my own wondering face.
While locals line the sidewalks and await his (pre-scheduled) arrival at their homes, the Krampus runs through town, shaking his bells, swinging his broomstick, and admonishing the little ones about their behavior throughout the year. He’s got friends with him who carry baskets of treats for kids – peanuts and tangerines and maybe little chocolates. Sometimes, St. Nikolaus is there too, giving stern but affectionate lectures, asking the children to recite rhymes about Christmas.
The story of the Krampus is scary. He will beat you with his broomstick, stuff you in his sack, drag you back to his lair if you’ve been bad. He’s a terror. There’s no denying it. But our Krampus, the one that runs the streets of my husband’s tiny village, he’s more “Where the Wild Things Are” than hatched from James Cameron’s green glowing alien planet. His face is a carved wooden mask, not shiny resin and plastic. He carries a bundle of twigs bound into an old fashioned broom, not a length of chain or a whip. He will raise his hands over head and roar at the cocky teenager who taunts him with the traditional Krampus rhyme, but he will not chase a tourist four blocks in an act of aggression. He is campfire ghost-story scary, not “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” scary.
It is strange that I have affection for this alpine myth, for this black devil from places unknown, but each winter I find myself an unlikely defender of the Krampus. People send me videos of vicious looking beasts running rampant through snow covered hamlets and I think, “No, no, no. You don’t understand, this is not what the Krampus is.” My memory will not be ruined by this. I hold the picture in my hand and think, “Ah, there you are! This is the Krampus I know, the one my husband grew up with!” I stand in the snow surrounded by creatures imagined. There are big snowflakes and the sound of bells and eyes big with wonder and I am not even a little bit afraid.
[Photo credit: Pam Mandel]