I have long red welts on my buttocks and legs. I must admit that avoiding flagellation into adulthood was something I had taken for granted, until I visited Austria.
In the Austrian region of Salzkammergut, the goat-horned, clawed and hairy Krampusse (the plural of Krampus) come out in packs on December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day.
Dressed in elaborate costumes of animal fur and grotesque wooden masks, hauled out of storage one night a year, excited young men get to terrorise their neighbours.
Pagan supernatural beings
The origins of the Krampus parades go back to a belief in pagan supernatural beings who lived in the caves of the surrounding mountains, and appearing in winter to inflict punishment with whips.
Unlike the locals, I was completely unprepared for this ritual. It took me almost the entire night and a series of painful wallops to pick up the technique of jumping and blocking the flailing switches of birch rods with my shins.
The quaint town of Hallstatt seems too quiet and pleasant for such evil goings-on. With its rows of wooden houses set in a stunning valley of enormous mountains, the town truly deserves its World Heritage listing. I have travelled here for a quiet weekend in the country, to walk along snowy mountain trails and enjoy the famous smoked trout from the pristine Hallstatt lake. Even the devil-horned dough Krampus in the bakery window, nestled between chocolate figures of Saint Nicholas, don't hint at the horror that Krampustag (Krampus Day) will inflict upon the unsuspecting. "Go to the town square at 7pm" says the baker "but be careful…"
Now, in nervous anticipation, I join most of Hallstatt's 900 inhabitants, who have gathered to drink hot punch around log fires and wait for the parade to begin. Over the dramatic classical anthems booming from the balcony of a souvenir shop, we hear the Krampusse approach by the clanging of rusty chains and cowbells attached to the fur on their backs. And then the half-mock terror laughter begins, and I am searching for cover in a confused scene of fur and wood and whips.
Settling old scores
The motivation of today's Krampuslauf (Krampus Walk) seems more flirtatious than anything else. Children are mostly spared from the whips and get presents from a benign St. Nicholas who accompanies the monsters in white robes and an unconvincing false beard. It is mostly young girls in tight jeans who get spanked, many of whom taunt the beasts and probably know them personally anyway. Other Krampusse seem to be more focused on vengeance, singling people out from the audience and whispering into their ears as they whip. There may be some scores to be settled here in Hallstatt, and what better way than behind a mask with a whip in a clawed-hand?
A few nights later, more than 600 Krampusse gather in the market town of Bad Goisern. Each herd comes from a different mountain pass and presents a particular interpretation of the Krampus myth.
The local fire brigade has set up fences to keep the audience safe from overly enthusiastic Krampusse reaching into the crowd. As the groups parade through the cold streets one by one, an MC announces the village, the leader and the name of the artist who has done the detailed carving of the masks.
The variation is astounding. There are blinking LED eyes, burning horns, and weeping silicon wounds. There are mini Krampusse the smallest I notice is a four year old and a few witch-like females known as Frau Bercht. There are fire-breathing black angels, a Krampus with a chain saw, a Krampus hanging from a fork lift, and a synchronised Krampus booty dance.
The whole thing is starting to feel a bit like an overly theatrical Halloween parade until, after the last group walks past, the firemen whisk the barriers away. The last announcement from the MC is difficult to decipher but may have been something like "Parents, take your children home now!" The Krampus are loose and chaos ensues. Once again I run from the deafening cacophony of the girls squealing, the bells rattling, and the birch roads flailing, to find refuge in a warm smoky tavern.
By the end of the night, the tavern is full of sweaty, exhausted, exhilarated Krampusse. Rolling down their fur suits at the waist and finding a place to set their heavy horned heads, they release the tight grips they have held all night on their whips and our imaginations. As beer-drinking mortals, we are the same, the punished and the punishers. What a relief, this ritual is over and the rest of Christmas is about Santa Claus and carols. My thighs and buttocks still burn, but I am glad to have met Austria's dark figures of winter.