What is the Krampuslauf?
I’m certainly not the only one who has been wondering what a Krampuslauf is all about and how on earth it’s relevant to the festive and happy Christmas holidays every time December rolls around.
Before visiting Graz, Austria, I had never heard of a Krampuslauf, but I’d definitely seen a few Facebook and YouTube videos float by over the last few years featuring wild demons dancing through the night and scaring the children around the streets of Austria. Initially, I was sure it was a prank, or perhaps a Halloween tradition celebrated a little too late in the season, until the film Krampus came out in 2015.
More specifically, it is a traditional Austrian procession that tells the story of a folklore tale about Krampus, an anthropomorphic creature (half-goat, half-demon) who punishes children who have misbehaved throughout the year.
Instead of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) leaving a lump of coal in your stocking when you’re naughty in North America, the children of Austria are whipped and punished by these horrific demons that roam the streets early in December.
Despite the fact that I feel like I’m about to write you a horror novel, the Krampuslauf was one of the coolest, wildest, most adrenaline pumping experiences of my life. So, before I go on to tell you a bit more about the stories that lie behind the Krampuslauf, I want to tell you that this is definitely something you need to add to your travel experience list when visiting Graz, Austria in the winter time.
Who and what exactly is Krampus?
This horned half-goat, half-demon is a folklore figure often described to have obscenely large horns, a thick furry body, massive hooves and the devil’s eyes. He is often seen wearing and/or carrying baskets full of birch sticks, chains, horse hair and might just breathe fire when you’re least expecting it.
Fun Fact: The word Krampus derives from the old Germanic word “Krampen” which in English means ‘claw’
Krampus is said to be one of Saint Nicholas’ companions and is not just known in Graz, Austria, but around the entire country and in other neighbouring countries like Croatia, Southern Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic and Northern Italy.
While many international traditions are quite different, there are a number of European countries who celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. In countries like Austria and Germany, St. Nicholas comes on the night of December 6th shortly after the children have put their boots out on the doorstep and have fallen asleep, and stuffs the children’s boots full of chocolate, candy and money. However, for the children who have been bad, their boots will lay empty and they’ll have another surprise waiting for them in the shadows of the night.
The night before December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) is known as Krampus Night (Krampusnacht).
As the story goes, Krampus will come out, punish the naughty children and then bring them down into the underworld with him where they will never be seen again.
Are you scared yet? How would you like to experience a parade of more than 400 Krampuses running through the dark alleys of the town?
What is the Krampuslauf?
The Krampuslauf is a traditional parade known in English as the Krampus Run. I had the opportunity to experience the Krampuslauf at the “Advent Market” close to the City Hall in Graz, Austria this year and I couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.
During this festive Christmas procession (the Krampuslauf) in Graz, many of the Krampuses were played by young local men and women. They dressed up in goat and/or sheep skin suits, strapped animal horns to their heads and often wore hand carved masks. We also found a lot of modern outfits which consisted of latex masks, fake fur and hand crafted weapons. However, regardless of which costume they chose, one thing was for sure… the Krampuslauf was terrifying!
The event started at 4:00 PM and in the dead of winter, the sun started to set rather quickly. It was only after a few Krampuses had made their first entrance out onto the streets when the sky fell to dusk and the fire breathing Krampuses started lighting the path along the Herrengasse. The parade lasted 2 hours and despite the freezing cold temperatures, I was filled with excitement waiting to see what might be lurking around the next corner. There were more than 400 gruesome creatures dancing the streets that evening. Many of them were whipping the legs of children, stealing hats and often handing out Krampus schnapps (a fruit brandy) to the adults in the crowd.
However, there is one very important part that I’m missing here, and that is that during the Krampuslauf, there were more creatures in attendance. Saint Nikolaus, Perchten, angels and old women also made guest appearances throughout the night.
The Perchten and the angels made their appearances during the Krampuslauf in white or black feathers/wings and dresses. The Perchten are typically a group of women who roam the streets in brown wooden masks and sheepskin warding off the evil and saving the children from Krampus. They also often have their own day of celebration around the winter solstice and the 6th of January, but have been known to make an appearance at many Krampuslaufen around Austria in recent years.
Fun Fact: The word Perchten derives from the old Germanic word “Perchta” which in English means ‘bright or brilliant’
To be completely honest, I’m not really sure why Saint Nicholas plays a role in his counterparts (Krampus) big procession, but it definitely made for a thrilling performance!
Where did Krampus and the Krampuslauf originate?
As the legend goes, Krampus is a folklore figure that dates back to the pre-Christian traditions in the Alpine regions. However, the unique part about this mythical figure is that no one really seems to know exactly where and when he made his first appearance. Though it is to be said that Krampus may have derived from the form of the Horned God of the Witches.
What is the Horned God of the Witches you ask?
Well, the Horned God of the Witches is known as the creator or god that was found in Wicca traditions. Wicca is a pagan witchcraft that was developed in England throughout the beginning of the 20th century and had a heavy focus on ritual practices.
This Horned God represented the masculine part of the Wicca religion, while the feminine part was represented by the Mother Goddess or the Triple Goddess of the Moon. He represented the life cycle of the people in regards to nature, sexuality, hunting and wilderness.
Or, instead of the Horned God of the Witches, Krampus could have also derived from Hel, the goddess of the dead.
What is a Hel Goddess you ask?
Well, the Hel Goddess is the ruler of Hel (or as we in English, know it as “Hell”) or the ruler of the underworld where many of the dead are laid to rest.
Fun Fact: The word “Hel” derives from the Old Norse language, a Germanic language spoken only by the Vikings. Hel in English actually means “hidden”, get it? The ‘hidden’ underworld?
The Hel Goddess has been known for many generations as being cruel, greedy and nasty. She was often recognized as half-white and half-black with a particularly gruesome appearance (similar to Krampus).
Or, instead of the Hel Goddess, Krampus could have derived from a pagan supernatural similar to the Christian devil.
Of course, I could go on forever about all the different myths and stories about how and where Krampus originates from, but one thing is for sure, Krampus is half-goat and half-demon and comes from the underworld (which many of us know in English as ‘Hell’).
Of course, in addition to Krampus himself, many of the objects that Krampus carries with him on the night of the Krampuslauf have significant meanings too.
The metal chains: signify the Christian phrase of “binding the devil”
The wrapped birch twigs: were commonly used during witchcraft initiations
The Krampus schnapps: a strongly brewed batch of fruit brandy perhaps just um…. celebrates the occasion?
What makes the Graz Krampuslauf so special?
The old town of Graz offers a perfect magical Christmas fairytale setting, so much so that when the Krampuses come out for a run, it sends tingles down your spine, as if you weren’t expecting it.
You can spend the entire day sipping on mulled wine (Glühwein), eating Styrian favourites and singing Christmas carols, but when the sun sets, the entire feeling of the city changes. The windows vibrate with the sounds of growls, roars and clanking chains, suspenseful music blasts out of the speakers from chained cars and wagons, and fireballs light up the night sky. The experience of the Graz Krampuslauf is truly one of a kind and can only be described as bone chilling, exhilarating and a must see for all ages!
What’s even more unique for the region of Styria, is that the wrapped birch twigs (as mentioned above) have a very special role in family households. These wrapped twigs are called Ruten bundles and are often presented by Krampus to families around the region. These bundles are spray painted gold and to be put up on display in the family household for the entire year. Why? Because this gold bundle of birch twigs will remind all the children that Krampus is never far away and will always know when you’ve done something naughty.
Tips to Conquering the Krampuslauf in Graz
There’s no doubt that the Krampuslauf is a popular event for locals and visitors alike. People fly from all over the world to experience this one of a kind event. That means that you won’t be the only one in attendance, so you’re definitely going to have to plan a little bit in advance.
Make sure you arrive 30 – 45 minutes early
When we first arrived in Graz, we assumed being 20 minutes early to the Krampuslauf would leave us plenty of room to find the best spot along the route. Boy, were we wrong! The Krampuslauf runs along the Herrengasse to the City Hall and is absolutely packed with visitors. So, remember to head there at least 30 minutes prior to the start of the procession.
Find the best place to stand
Even if you’ve managed to snag a front row spot for the Krampuslauf, there’s definitely better locations and sub-par locations as to where you can be standing. If you’re not too eager to snap photos during the event, this tip might not be as important to you. However, if you’re hoping to take photos, make sure you’re standing in front of the barriers at a turning point. As soon as the Krampuslauf starts, the Krampuses make a turn along the Herrengasse, this is where I was, and I can highly recommend it!
Don’t forget that it’s the beginning of December which means the temperatures will drop and it can get pretty chilly once the sun goes down. You might be filled with adrenaline and excitement, but make sure you don’t forget to pack that warm jacket, mittens and a hat!
More tips for Graz, Austria
Have I sold you on visiting Graz during the winter season? Good!
Just don’t forget that there is a ton more to do in the city of Graz while you’re there. Actually, so much so, that I’ve also put together the Ultimate Winter Weekend Guide to Graz to help you create the perfect itinerary while you’re visiting.
Of course, no trip to Graz in the winter is complete without a few too many cups of Glühwein!