Last updated: 10:00 AM ET, Fri November 06 2015

Why Christmas in Central Europe is Kind of Terrifying

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | November 06, 2015

Why Christmas in Central Europe is Kind of Terrifying

PHOTO: Members of the Koatlacker devil's association (Koatlacker Tuifl) dressed as demonic creatures take part in a Krampus procession on December 4, 2011 in Prad near Merano, Italy. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

Holiday season is coming to the alpine regions of Central Europe. When people think of early winter in the mountains of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, things like mulled wine, Christmas markets and light displays usually come to mind. These quaint images are a major reason tourists come to the Alps each December. However, in many places, the season kicks off with a very different kind of celebration.

A different side to holiday traditions

Often held on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day (which is on Dec. 6), Krampusnacht is named after Krampus, a mythical goat-like demon who is supposedly responsible for punishing children who were bad during the year and deemed unworthy of a visit from Santa.

Traditionally, children place their shoe outside of their door on Krampusnacht. If they have been good, Saint Nicholas leaves them candy or other presents in the shoe. If they are bad, Krampus leaves sticks or coal. In some stories, the beast leaves a rod so that the parents can spank the unruly children. (In darker tellings, Krampus holds a birch branch or other spanking implement and carries out the punishment himself. Happy nightmares, kids!).

For obvious reasons, the Christian leadership of German-speaking Europe has historically opposed any celebration of Krampusnacht. However, festivals featuring Krampus have been becoming more popular in recent years. Costumed events started taking place in Austria and Germany and then spread throughout the region. You can now find parades and processions with hundreds of Krampus impersonators in towns in Germany (especially Bavaria), Northern Italy (especially South Tyrol), Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

Krampus has other names depending on the region. The same (or a similar) character goes by Perchten or Tuifl in some corners of Central Europe. 

PHOTO: A traditional parade of the 'Krampus', beast-like creatures march through the historic city of Bressanone on the eve before St. Nicholas Day in 2013. (Courtesy of Thinkstock)

Fearsome costumes and a wild parade

Some people contend that the reemergence of Krampus is a response to the over-commercialization of Christmas. Others think that now that the countries that mark Krampusnacht are firmly secular places, they wants to celebrate the aspects of their folk culture that had been previously suppressed.

Most of the practices surrounding Krampusnacht are simply about having fun. Halloween-like celebrations feature people dressing in hairy Krampus costumes and masks and running through the streets in something that resembles a parade or procession. Participants sometimes make an effort to play the part, chasing children who are close to the parade route.

Alcohol is usually an integral part of these festivities. In some communities, a special kind of Krampus schnapps is consumed by the parade marchers.

There is a cultural aspect to these celebrations that goes beyond the folklore. Some local artisans spend weeks carving intricate masks that are used during Krampusnacht. The most skillfully made of these can cost upwards of €1,000 when combined with a full costume.

Toning it down for the tourists

The figure of Krampus can seem quite fearsome in the folkloric stories and in the Krampusnacht parades in smaller cities and towns in the mountains The character has been softened for major tourist centers. You can find images of the demon in cities like Salzburg, Austria, but these are often humorous, or they have a Saturday-Night-Post feel rather than being scary.  

For local people, these celebrations are an integral part of the holiday season. So tourists who want to get the whole Central European Christmas experience might want to consider including Krampusnacht when they are planning out their European Alps itinerary. 

PHOTO: From the folklore of Alpine countries, the Krampus is thought to punish children who had misbehaved and naughty. He is the devilish companion of St. Nicholas. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

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