Krampus Festival, Zell am See, Austria

A Krampus Christmas in Zell am See

We don’t have children. And because we don’t have children I’m in no position to offer advice to our friends and relatives who do. Or so they keep telling me.

One friend once said “never, ever question how people raise their children until you have your own”. The life-changing experience flicks a switch in some people. Hedonists start worrying about the future of the planet. Junk food apologists start reading food labels in supermarkets. Some who couldn’t name the leader of the country start getting interested in politics. Others go nuts from lack of sleep.

But I’m going to offer some advice anyway: If you bring your kids to Austria, don’t go to a Krampus Festival.

Krampus (meaning claw) is the anti-Santa Claus. If children are ‘nice’ they get presents from St Nicholas, if they’re ‘naughty’ they get a visit from the demonic Krampus.

If you’re in Zell am See on the 5th of December, you get a little Santa and a lot of Krampus. And a lot of crying children and adults getting whipped with bunches of birch branches by Jägermeister-fuelled sadists.

“They’re idiots,” said the owner of the bar we snuck into for a glühwein to escape the madness of the procession of ugly, furry ‘monsters’ that had been streaming down the main pedestrian street for a couple of hours. “There’s not enough control over them and they run riot. They’re usually drunk and their sweaty suits stink,” she said.

As we emerge from the bar, a teenage boy slips over in the snow after getting whipped and is knocked out cold.

We’ve been to plenty of traditional festivals around the world, but what’s missing from this tradition is that there is no sense of fun. There was little devilish humour in the way these guys (and it’s mostly guys) acted. Most of the ‘monsters’ demonstrated little in the way of personality and were straight-out malicious. And while I’m not a parent, is scaring the living daylights out of your kids really the best incentive to get them to be nice instead of naughty?

As we were being served our glühweins at an outdoor bar where we had gone to ponder this, a Krampus chased a screaming teenage girl into the bar. Steaming hot wine spilled left, right and centre. Lara wore a mug of it on her face, while my camera and flash were soaked in the sticky liquid.

When we complained to the manager about how stupid it was to these guys to run riot when there’s hot drinks and outdoor gas heaters everywhere, the bar manager turned to us and said, “That’s how it goes, welcome to Austria!” Indeed.

There are 11 comments

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  1. Akila

    Wow. That does look downright scary. My six-year old nephew gets scared by “funny” masks . . . he would cry for days on end after seeing this. In a way, it kind of reminds me of Halloween except with less of the fun in it.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Exactly! It *was* scary. There were a lot of terrified children watching. And adults! Including me. The welts across the backs of our knees didn’t go away until the next day either.

  3. Keith

    Where I live, this is called ‘assault’

    Wonder what the reaction of Krampus would be to a knuckle sandwich & calling for a cop? I’ve never heard of anything like this; most such ‘spactacles’ give you the *choice* of taking part, or just watching.

  4. Terence Carter

    Keith, I could have mentioned a couple of incidents of retaliation, but they’re best left for my memoirs…
    Many ski towns have made the festival a little more anodyne to attract tourists (barricades etc), but the tourists we spoke to in Zell were a more than a little taken aback at the ‘festival’.
    It would be great from a 1st floor balcony if you’re not a masochist. Or a photographer.

  5. Grace Dubai

    Great sane advice Lara! I believe that praising children when they do good is more effective (they’ll continue to do good) than scaring them when they are naughty. And to think it’s a Christmas festival! Christmas is for children! Poor kids!!

  6. Lara Dunston

    Thanks! The poor kids are petrified of these furry monsters! They’re not only super scary-looking but they chase after the children and whip them with branches. We’ve never seen anything quite like it.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Lara Dunston

    That was Terence’s advice actually, but totally agree. I know, it’s very sad to see the frightened little things. I reckon some must have nightmares for weeks or be scarred for life!

  8. Felix

    I think that’s a rather one sided view of the Krampus festival. Not surprising perhaps because the whole thing is well outside of many travellers comfort zone but let me offer a local’s opinion.

    First, let me said that this is one tradition that is strictly “for the locals”. What I mean is that it has not been scrubbed and “disnyfied” for tourist consumption. A few years ago, this tradition was hardly known at all outside of the area in Central Europe (Austria, southern Germany, northern Italy, Slovenia, Hungary) where it is practised and only very recently it has had some exposure, mostly in America, and with that come many opinions, often bewildered and negative, sometimes intrigued but mostly full of misunderstandings.

    It’s a very old tradition, going back way before Christianity into pagan times that was for a long time solely practised in small alpine villages where it maintained much of it’s pagan sigificance, which is now mainly lost. Only in the 19th century it became a little more popular and was coopted, like many originally pagan rites, into Christianity. Krampus unfortunately was drafted as something like St. Nick’s “bad cop” to frighten children into line, in accordance with 19th century ideas about child rearing. It’s this aspect that many people who really don’t know much about it still focus on and that’s unfortunate.

    The Krampus festival always was somewhat controversial and especially in the early 20th century it was seen with disfavor. I was then banned altogether for a few decades, first by the Austrian fascists and then by the Nazis and only in the late 50ies it was slowly making a comeback, gaining in popularity ever since. And with changing ideas about child upbringing it also gradually lost it’s connection to it. When I was a child up in a small village in rural Austria in the 80ies, Krampus day was very emphatically not a children’s festival. The Krampus that children got to know was more of a joke figure, often in the form of little chocolate figures or made of dried fruits and nuts. However, during Krampus day, when young men roam the streets in their costumes, children stayed at home, especially small ones. When I was allowed to go outside during Krampus for the first time, I was eight and my parents gave me a long talk so that I knew what was awaiting outside and to make sure I really wanted to see it. And, yes, I was very afraid but it also was exhilerating and exciting and, yes, fun.

    You say that there’s no sense of fun to the whole thing. Well, from my experience, I couldn’t disagree more! I remember it to be the most fun day of the whole year. Me and my friends would roam the streets of the village seeking out the Kramperln (diminuitive plural form of Krampus), goading them into chasing us, mocking them and trying to run away from them. It was great fun and we earned bragging rights for the rest of the year. It’s a big game and though it can get quite rowdy at times, the worst that normally ever happens is that you get a few swats with a birch twig, which stings a bit but nothing more.

    You voice safety concerns and, yes, I have to agree, the whole thing is not very safe, by modern standards. I think that’s part of what makes it great. In the best tradition of similar festivals in Europe throughout history, like the Roman Saturnalia or the various forms of carneval, it’s one night a year when the social order is turned on it’s head a bit, parts of the social contract are suspended and normal expectations don’t hold up. Demons roam the streets and it forces you to really act like a grown up and ask yourself: “Can I go along with that? Is it for me?” If not, you should stay at home this one night of the year.

    Of course, this only works if everybody is in on it. That’s why tourists are often put off by the spectacle, I think. There’s also the thing that, generally, the festival as you observed it is only celebrated in small towns and villages where people know each other. Seeing a complete stranger come at you with a horrific mask and furs and rattling chains is much more menacing then when you know the guy, his family and friends.

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