As a child, I remember the Krampus in Bischofstetten, my home village in Austria. He was a scary figure. On Krampusnacht, on 5th December, the Eve of the Feast of St Nicholas, we would get to meet him.
Oma and Opa, my grandparents, had a hayloft with recesses stained black with the smoke from candles, which were used for illumination before electricity reached the village. I can’t remember if they told me that the Krampus lived in those mysterious dark holes or whether it was the product of my own fertile imagination, but always I went up in the hayloft with a feeling of dread.
I was even more apprehensive around the real Krampus. He was red-faced and, most often, angrily intoxicated. He would lash out at the teenagers with a vicious stick, berating those who had misbehaved, and flailing around at the braver boys who risked a beating by goading him.
The traditional Krampus is a wicked hairy devil who appears in the streets accompanied by Saint Nicholas, the prototype of Santa Claus, who dispenses gifts to the boys and girls who have been good. The Krampus, in contrast, deals with the bad boys, and dished out lumps of coal and Ruten bundles to those who had strayed from the straight and narrow path ostensibly followed by the villagers.
Memory is imperfect. I don’t feel I was particularly among the bad kids, but I do remember holding on to my mother and feeling less than certain about my safety. I felt an affinity with the girls, who mostly treasured their safety, but I also felt a strong lure for those bad girls who did not.
The Krampus is customarily offered Schnapps, a strong distilled fruit brandy, and as the evening went on, Krampus’ behaviour would become more erratic. Many years later, I heard all sorts of bad rumours about the Krampus – among the least of these was that he was an alcoholic in real life, but there were far worse.
Krampusnacht in Bischofstetten was part of the Roman Catholic heritage of Austria, in which my mother had been seeped as a child. But I felt the festival had deeply pagan roots. Germanic folklore has many pagan spirits, and the dark wild anarchic Krampus ressembles the Perchten who are loosed on the world in the days between the Winter Solstice and Twelfth Night.