The scary side of Christmas
The bus is packed and tempers are fraying as those who can’t fit are left to wait on the snowy pavement. On board, spirits are high. Childish excitement is contagious. At Gnigl station in Salzburg, Austria, the bus spews its pasengers onto the street and the pace quickens as I follow the crowd up the street. A fire engine blocks the road and the scream of labouring engines marks the point where the trolley buses unhook and divert to continue their journey under their own power. Behind metal barriers, the crowd is already four or five thick. I squeeze past and make my way along the street until I find a space next to three youngsters of primary age. I take a few test shots with the camera and the little boy next to me tells me sternly to use the flash.
Soon, the parade gets underway. The Krampuslauf has a long history in Austria, its origins in pagan rituals dating from the Middle Ages. While St Nicolaus rewards good children with sweets, those who have been naughty have to face the consequences of their actions. Chains and claws set the Krampus apart from the evil Schiachperchten, who are also masked creatures with shaggy pelts and curved horns. Traditionally, the perchten weren’t seen during Advent, instead being associated with the period between the Winter solstice and Epiphany. These days the once defined lines between the two have become blurred, though no one seems to mind.
The costumes are elaborate, with no visible trace of the human inside. Hand carved wooden masks are painted in garish colours. From head to toe a suit of shaggy sheep wool, plus tail of course, tops shoes hidden behind hooves. The jarring sound of the bells on their backs marks their arrival. The children next to me fall silent, their fearful eyes widening. They’re young enough still to believe. A six foot beast runs at the barrier and clambers up, rearing over the children’s heads to great effect. Their shrieks pierce the night and they shrink back, momentarily afraid. Even as an adult, it’s a frightening moment, and I can’t help myself as I jump back too.
One child finds the courage to roar back at the Krampus and the monster ruffles his hair in a good-natured response. Everyone plays along, and the atmosphere is one of family fun. But there are more terrifying figures behind him. As they dart up the street, they twist this way and that. The cow bells on their backs clank heavily and they swish whips fashioned, I’m told, from a horse’s tail. I’ve heard that it’s common for them to thrash spectators’ legs and it makes me a little nervous.
From time to time, there’s an injection of humour. One group stops to perform a dance routine, though they’re as far removed from a boy band as you can get. Another pair face off as if in a boxing ring, before dropping to the floor and doing press ups. The children next to me giggle, at least until they jump to their feet. But St Nicolaus isn’t far behind and their pleading cries gain the desired result: sweets. They stuff their faces, eyes bright, their fear of Krampus forgotten.
The frigid air bites my cheeks and I wrap my scarf tighter around my face. The parade’s only about half done, but there’s a gluhwein stand within sight and it’s time to warm up.
Where to see the Krampus in or around Salzburg
5th December, is St Nicolaus Eve, the night of the Krampus run in Salzburg’s Altstadt. There are also many other parades that take place throughout the Salzburg region, from its suburbs to tiny mountain villages, as well as throughout Austria and the neighbouring German state of Bavaria. The following two links will help you plan which Krampus or Perchten parades coincide with your visit:
If you plan to head to Gnigl next year, it’s an easy ride on the #4 trolley bus from Mirabellplatz in the centre of the city. Alight at Gnigl S-bahn station and follow the crowd a couple of blocks up to Turnerstrasse or Schillinghofstrasse to claim your spot.