The Krampus Creeps through Salzburg

St. nicholas, Krampus, Salzburg
St. Nicholas consoling the children

When we arrived in Salzburg, Austria on Dec. 5th, Christmas had already come! The streets were lit up with brilliant lights and the smells of baked goods wafted deep into our senses. Around every corner Christmas carollers galore sang traditional tunes, accompanied by brass bands and accordion players. Mulled wine was being quaffed in sickening amounts and temporary stalls, set up in several of Salzburg’s squares, were selling a multitude of bees-wax candles, holiday decorations, and mountains of sugary sweets. Little did we know that all of these familiar festivities were leading up to something strange…. and possibly terrible.

There was a time, long before the coming of Christianity, that a horned creature stalked the woods of Austria, a seven foot tall monster standing on one cloven foot and one claw. With its long tongue, pointed ears and bulging, yellow eyes, it was indeed fearsome to behold. Wherever this primal beast came from no one really knows, perhaps it was once an ancient pagan god of nature, or a monster that prowled during the dark times of winter when suffering and death could come as sudden as the wind.

Krampus, Christmas Card, Salzburg
“Greetings from the Krampus”, a Christmas Card from the 1900’s.

Such things of olden times are lost in mystery, but we do know that as early as 1600 the “Krampus” (derived from the German word for “claw”) became a part of Christian traditions and every year it would accompany St. Nicholas on his journey to bring presents for all the good girls and boys. While St. Nicholas dispenses the gifts and blessings to the good, the Krampus seeks out all the bad, joyfully punishing wicked children by whipping them raw with birch switches and even carrying them off to its lair to torture them further. On December 5th, the eve before St. Nicholas arrives to give out the goodies, the Krampuslauf occurs, and despite being warned about it before arriving in Austria on Dec. 5th, I still wasn’t quite certain what to expect.

Krampus Run, Salzburg

During the day, Ashleigh and I had a merry ol’ time exploring Salzburg’s Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site and the birthplace of the 18th century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Christmas markets, decorations and events aside, Salzburg is truly a beautiful and enchanting city– we were pleasantly surprised with its marvellous cathedrals, grand parks, and its mountain-top castle.

My personal favourite attraction was the Panorama Museum, a gallery filled with incredibly detailed and life-like paintings of famous places around the world, by Johann Michael Sattler (1786–1847). We enjoyed wandering around the gallery trying to guess which city or wonder the paintings depicted (of course, the fact that they were painted nearly 200 years ago made it difficult, some of the cities looked completely different!). In the centre of the museum was a smaller, cylindrical room where a grand panorama painting, depicting Salzburg in 1829, was set.

Panorama Museum, Salzburg
Panorama of Salzburg

When darkness fell across the land, Ashleigh and I ventured to the centre of town to experience what Austrians call the Krampuslauf, “Krampus Run”. Following the sound of bells and screams, we turned a corner only to be swept up into a horde of monstrosities and people trying to run away from said monstrosities. At least a hundred folks dressed up as hairy, horned beasts, with giant cow bells tied to their backs, screeched and wailed and terrorized anyone who came too close. Some were stumpy, some were seven feet tall, some had glowing eyes, and all of them had massive horns that curled every which way and fangs that would put a lion to shame. Everyone moved to the side of the road to let the Krampus March pass, but the unlucky ones were harassed, humiliated, captured, and no one was spared a whip from their switches. Ashleigh got charcoaled as a mangy paw clamped over her face, and we struggled to protect ourselves from these beasts, though we were laughing all the while. Here’s a video of what happened:

Later that evening, stunned and exhilarated by the ghastly Krampus Run, we found ourselves a traditional beer hall to nurse away our fears. Beer Halls are found all throughout Germany and Austria, massive seating areas for drinking and feasting, often with its own brewery attached. The Augustiner Brau is the largest tavern in Austria (with a working area of over 5,000 m²) and is filled with stalls selling all sorts of greasy food, bulbous barrels of cheap beer and great halls with long tables to sit and drink your stein. While we were there, a few cheerful drinking songs were sung around the table, and with cold beer and warm schnitzel in our bellies, we felt quite at home in this golden drinking hall, far away from the darkness of that winter’s night.

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