When I was travelling around Europe for the Christmas Markets I expected to see plenty of Santas and maybe a few elves and reindeer. What I didn’t expect to find was a giant, hairy, devil-looking creature known as Krampus; essentially a Christmas demon who has his own celebration called the Krampus Run or Krampusnacht.
My First Krampus Run
It was 2011, and I was in Salzburg for the first time at the end of November. I’d just spent a day exploring the city and was on the local bus headed back to the cozy B&B I had booked for my stay. As the bus drove through the smaller neighbourhoods outside of the city centre, a group of bright lights caught my attention. I wiped some of the condensation off the screen and peered out at a large crowd of people of all ages across the street. With that, the bus came to a stop and emptied out. On impulse, I got off too.
There were easily 100 people standing around what was probably, earlier in the day, a little Christmas market. However, any stalls had been cleared away and no adults, teenagers, and children alike stood in a semi-circle, eyes towards a makeshift stage upon which an elaborately dressed Santa-like figure stood. But instead of being surrounded by jolly, pointy-eared elves, he was flanked by big, hairy demons.
With greasy dark hair, pointed horns, and wicked looking faces with a mouth full of fangs, these Christmas demons were terrifying. They were huge, most around 6 feet tall, bulky, and covered in matted fur. Each of these intimidating creatures held a whip in his hand and as they strode off the stage and into the crowd, they were accompanied by the dull ring of a bell which seemed to be hanging from each of their backsides.
Of course, I was delighted that I had stumbled upon this unique tradition I pulled out my camera and started snapping away. And then, suddenly, the hairy demons broke into a run and started chasing members of the crowd.
Young kids and teenagers alike ran away laughing and screeching from these demons who chased them with their whips. I laughed along with the parents until suddenly I realized I too had become a target. Clearly, the fact that I was an obvious tourist vetoed my non-child status, and soon I was running away from those whips with the young children.
After running away several times, (half terrified, half laughing), I headed back to the bus stop where I returned to my B&B. It was there that my host told me what I had seen was Krampus and what I had experienced was called a Krampus Run.
The Legend of Krampus and Krampusnacht
Krampus is essentially the anti-Santa. Where Santa has a happy sack filled with toys, Krampus uses his sack to kidnap bad children and take them to the underworld where he tortures and, in some cases, kills them.
How’s that for a bedtime story?
The name Krampus comes from the German word krampen which means claw. According to legend, he is the son of the Norse goddess Hel and shares many features with demonic creatures from ancient folklore. The tradition of Krampus is centuries old though still plays a role in both German and Austrian cultures. The night of December 5th is known as Krampusnacht and this is when Krampus comes to town. Traditionally, this is the night that children would be taken away and punished, today it is a festival of sorts and many towns have what is called a Krampus Run.
Of course, after learning the story behind Krampus, I wanted to see him again. Luckily, in 2015 when I re-visited Salzburg for the Christmas markets with my mom, we somehow managed to time our stay to coincide with the Krampus run.
The Salzburg Krampus Run
My first Krampus run took place in a small neighbourhood and was more of a local event. However, Salzburg city itself also has a Krampus one and if I thought the ones I originally saw were scary, then these costumes were terrifying.
My mom and I arrived at the designated Krampus Run spot on time, and within minutes we heard the tell-tale clang of the bells announcing their arrival. Locals and tourists alike flocked together as the giant Krampus figures strode menacingly through the crowds, growling in people’s faces and whipping random bystanders.
There were easily a dozen or so Krampus figures at the Krampus run, and, at one point, my mom was so busy laughing at the one in front of her that she didn’t realize that she had one behind her; right over her shoulder. I wish I had recorded her blood-curdling scream as she turned around to discover a giant, hairy beast right behind her. We laughed so hard we had tears in our eyes and I definitely heard the man under the mask chuckle as he walked away as well.
The Salzburg Krampus run is free of charge but can get busy. However, it’s totally worth it. Though be warned you may be chased, and whipped, but it’s all in good fun. The Salzburg Krampus run normally takes place on the night of December 5th in the Alstadt of Salzburg. It happens at night, once the sun goes down (normally around 5pm) and I’d say it lasted about an hour. You can check online ahead of time here, and keep your eye out around the city for signs announcing the event.