Thanks to The Awesome Muse for this great rundown on Krampus as experienced in Los Angeles!
Krampus: Christmas Bad Boy
While we feel that Krampuses are all in good fun, some people may find some of the images in this article to be disturbing.
One of my favorite things to do is to learn about other cultures’ traditions. Over the past few years, my husband and I included the Austrian tradition of celebrating Krampus alongside St. Nicholas as part of our festivities. Since my husband’s heritage is from that part of the world, we’ve decided to include Krampuses in our Christmas traditions. In addition to our other festivities, we seek out a special Krampus event to attend.
Who is Krampus?
Quite simply, Krampus is the Christmas Devil.
Say what? Yes, I know…. You don’t normally think about Santa Claus, or more properly, St. Nick, hanging out with a demon. But historically, it seems like Krampus provided us with the origin story of what we now think of as the “naughty and nice list.” Let me tell you a little about where Krampuses come from, his legend, and how people celebrate him today.
In the mountains of Austria, Christmas time is a cold, snowy season. Darkness comes early, and with that darkness comes a little mystery. The mystery lying in the shadows is the Christmas devil himself. Krampus is the companion, or side kick, to St. Nicholas.
You may be familiar with St. Nicholas as the harbinger of the Christmas season with his feast day observed on December 6th. St. Nicholas is commonly depicted as someone who brings treats to those who have been good. But here’s where it gets interesting. St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of thieves; many call upon him to intercede on their behalf when they have committed a crime or need forgiveness for an unsavory deed. So it’s only natural that St. Nicholas has a counterpart to help him keep his hands clean.
Krampuses take care of those who have committed these dirty deeds (probably done dirt cheap – couldn’t resist) by flicking his whip upon the guilty to purify them of their sins. And if you’ve just been that bad, he’ll put you in his sack and take you down to the fires of hell. No St. Nick for you.
You Better Watch Out…
For many years, the Catholic Church has rejected Krampus, but he’s back on the upswing and his popularity is growing outside of Austria. Because of his close association with St. Nicholas, Krampus gets a pass these days. Sure, Krampus is scary. But that is the intention. He’s becoming more and more accepted and is being used by many families as a morality tool.
Many of us grew up hearing stories about the boogey man or some other terrifying creature. Krampuses are always there to remind children to behave. Parents might remind their children that the Krampuses are watching.
You know the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” Now that you know about Krampuses, you may hear it a little differently now.
“He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”
At one of the events we attended this year, one of the speakers from Austria described the concept of private Krampus. He spoke of the way his family celebrates Krampus at home; this is separate from the community celebration.
He recounted a story as a child where he and the other children of his family would gather together to wait for Krampus to visit. They waited for Krampus to determine if they had been bad or good. He recalled sitting on a bench with one of his grandfathers sitting on either side of him, stern and scary. And when he heard the sound of a tractor, he knew that the older boys in his family had arrived, dressed as Krampuses to terrorize them to determine if they had not been good. He said the terror was so much fun!
I think that terror he felt must be similar to the joy one takes in watching a horror movie. The way one’s adrenaline pumps for a good jump scare, and then leaves you feeling breathless and giddy. I’ve felt that way at a Krampus event before. They are scary to look at, but when they come for you, you can’t help but laugh in mock fear. It’s really quite hysterical and fun, and you are left wanting more.
Krampus is typically celebrated on the evening of December 5th – the night before St. Nicholas’s Saint Day and is called Krampusnacht. However, there’s now a season that begins as early as October in some parts of Austria, and it runs through Christmas. There are several ways to celebrate Krampus.
Krampus celebrations most commonly include a Krampuslauf, or run. A Krampus run is not anything like a 10 K. It’s more like a heavy metal version of the running of the bulls. Several people dress up in heavy, elaborate costumes covered in bells with wooden masks, and the masks can weigh up to 40 pounds.
A Krampus Run is like a heavy metal version of the running of the bulls.
The masks are amazing. To learn about how the masks are made, you need to see the documentary Tuifl. The masks are often passed down from father to son for generations. The craftsmanship is amazing. Many of them are carved from a single piece of wood.
Personally, I can’t imagine wearing such a heavy wooden mask. You have to be really strong to wear the Krampus costume. Here’s the trailer to give you an introduction to the artistry that goes into making these costumes.
Those dressed as Krampuses run through the streets of their local villages (or even here in Los Angeles) chastising sinners. They carry whips made from leather or horse-tail, and are covered in bells. Their appearance is terrifying, but it’s all in good fun. You know that kind of terror that makes you giddy? That’s the kind of feeling I get when I’m at a Krampus run. Consequently, if you love haunted houses, you would love a Krampuslauf.
There’s a Krampus Run in Los Angeles
Here in Los Angeles, we celebrate in a variety of ways. There is an annual Krampus Run, typically in Downtown LA. There’s also a Krampus Ball, some concerts and recently, a Krampus Play. These events are organized by Krampus Los Angeles.
The Nicholas-Krampus Play, or the Nicholausspiel
Traditionally, the story of Krampus would have been shared via the oral tradition. As people began to record their histories, many of these traditions were preserved as plays. The play is known in Austria as the Nicholausspiel and has been designated by UNESCO as part of Austria’s “intangible cultural heritage.”
These plays were performed until the 17th century. Commonly, St. Nicholas was shown as the hero, and Krampus was shown as his disciplinarian sidekick. The plays are allegorical in nature and are used much like how we would treat a reading of Aesop’s Fables. They were meant to instruct one on issues of morality and to guide you toward being a better person. With a bit of terror thrown in for fun, of course.
The Nicholausspiel at the Church of the Angels
My husband and I attended a presentation of the Krampus Play at the Church of the Angels in Pasadena earlier this month. It was a performance of the first English language translation of the Nicholausspiel. What we saw was was an original translation by Krampus expert and author, Al Ridenour. The version we saw came from the silver mining town of Schwaz in Tyrol.
I’m an Elizabethan scholar, and the Nicholausspiel felt very familiar to me despite being a new translation. It wasn’t so much the story of the Krampus that was familiar, but rather the format. The play’s allegorical nature reminded me of the traditional mummers plays that one would have seen in England, Scotland and Wales during the Renaissance. It had the feel of a traveling troupe come to the local village to share mesmerizing tales from afar. These plays are told in rhymed couplets so the lessons are easy to remember. They feel to a modern audience very much like one of Dr. Suess’s rhymes. It seems like the Krampuses were rhyming on stage long before Shakespeare and Hamilton made it cool.
While the traditions predate the Renaissance by several centuries, the Nicholausspiel also shares common elements with that of Commedia dell’Arte. Stock characters like a foolish man opposing a virtuous one are common to both art forms. They share common themes related to duality – good and evil, foolishness and wisdom, virtue and vice. The use of an exaggerated mask in Commedia defined its character just as Krampus’s mask defines him.
A true delight
The play was delightful. The audience was filled with children as well as adults, and while Krampuses are meant to cause a fright, they truly enjoyed it. After the show, many of the children were hugging Krampus! Even the big kids like me!
Learning more about Krampus
If you would like to learn more about the history and traditions celebrating Krampus, there’s a great book by Al Ridenour (of Krampus Los Angeles) that you can check out called The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas.
There’s also a few movies out there too, but they aren’t really about the REAL Krampus. But they are fun if you like the horror genre. In addition to that, we also really love that you can now find ugly Krampus sweaters too! We now have a Krampus ornament that we put on our Christmas tree each year.
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This past weekend, I had the opportunity to experience the Krampus phenomenon in Los Angeles that included a Krampus Run Thursday night and a Krampus Play Sunday evening. I’ve only become acquainted with Krampus in the last few years, and during that time I felt an obsession beginning to grow within me. I decided that I would educate myself and attend some of the events put on by Al Ridenour of Krampus Los Angeles as I figured it would help get me into the holiday spirit; and boy did it ever.
The Krampus Run is unlike anything I have ever seen before. The run itself is located on a closed off street in Downtown LA and features more than two dozen individuals from Krampus Troupe and Beast Bay Krampus dressed up as different interpretations of Krampus. In a world where everything costs money, this event was free of charge and offered guests a sight of something new and entertaining. Leading the procession was St. Nicholas himself who was chauffeured about in a Krampus-driven steam-car. As St. Nick made his way out into the open, he ushered us all closer, and as we advanced toward him, he proclaimed it time for the Krampus Run! At this point, a gate opened and Krampuses of all shapes and sizes spewed forth with sticks and whips to smack and hit unsuspecting onlookers. I was one of those onlookers and let me tell you, I was not expecting to get whipped like I did. The hordes of Krampuses followed St. Nicholas up and down the closed off street while spectators looked on and cheered. You could hear screams, growls, laughter, and terror throughout the packed street and there was even a slight smell of Christmas in the air. It was amazing to see how large the crowd was that came out to support this age-old Austrian tradition. And it wasn’t just adults; there were children, of all ages, screaming and laughing as the Krampuses rushed by them.
What I loved so much about this event was how happy everyone around me was. Though the folktales of Krampus evoke a fear in the hearts of those that have been naughty, it was clear that the people around me were having the time of their life. As St. Nick and his demonic friends headed back to the gate, those surrounding him were given chocolate pieces of coal for having been such naughty children. I found myself yelling out to St. Nicholas about my transgressions in hopes to snag a chocolate coal for myself and you bet your Krampus whipping ass I got one. I was impressed by the apparent time and effort it takes to put together these costumes. It was clear that those who participated in this tradition were passionate about what they did.
As the run came to a close, there was a free after party at the 1914-era Regent Theater. I unfortunately was not able to attend this portion of the event but there was live music from the Nordic lesbian Viking Metal group Sapphic Musk and entertainment by Rosemary’s Billygoat, complete with a fire-breathing stage show that included monster props, costumes, an electric chair and more! Though I had to head back home, friends later explained that it was unlike anything they had ever seen before. As I walked back to my car and away from all the festivities, I reflected back on the Krampus Run with a smile on my face and a new found respect for those who take this tradition to heart.
The next event that I attended came a few days later and was to be held at the Church of Angels in Pasadena, CA. All I knew was I was going to be seeing a Krampus Play, though I wasn’t even sure what that meant. What I ended up experiencing was so much more than that. Upon arrival to the Church of Angels, I was once again greeted by St. Nicholas on his Krampus-driven steam-car, who ushered us all inside the church. As I took a seat on one of the pews, I patiently awaited for whatever was to unfold and looked around at the sold out crowd. Scattered throughout the pews I could see guests dressed in headpieces with horns that resembled those of Krampus and I could tell there was an air of excitement all around. The Church itself was absolutely breathtaking with a nod to the Gothic Revival and was the perfect backdrop for the showpiece we were about to experience.
First up was a snippet from a documentary called Tuifl (“Devil”) by Hannah Jakubowska which gave viewers a glimpse into the history of Krampus. I absolutely adored this preview, and I now have a much better understanding of what Krampus is, how he came about, and what his place is in Christmas folklore. The documentary was shot in Austria and shows the traditions that are held dear to those who live there as well as interviews that were conducted with troupe members, mask-carvers, suit makers and proprietors of the Kartner Krampus Shop, one of the few stores that specializes in costumes, masks and assorted gear (such as bells, chains, and whips) for Krampus and Perchten (a midwinter creature) events.
After Michael & Monika’s performance we got to the main event, The Nicholas Plays. For those not familiar with the Nicholas Plays or “Nikolausspiel”, they are “a folk theater genre dating back to the 18th century and resemble England’s mummer’s plays. The Nicholas Play is a primary origin of the Krampus tradition” (Krampus Los Angeles). The play was translated from German for this show by producer and director Al Ridenour, who also is the creator of Krampus Los Angeles. The show was divided up into three acts: Death and the Youth, St. Nicholas and the Devils, and A Miracle of St. Nicholas. I absolutely LOVED the performances. For someone like me, who is a huge fan of horror, the Nicholas Plays had everything one could ever imagine such as Lucifer Krampus, butchered children, a bad-ass representation of Death, St. Nicholas kicking ass and taking names, murder, deceit and forgiveness. Though a lot of the subject matter was incredibly dark, it was put together with an air of humor and light heartedness which resulted in quite a juxtaposition of feelings towards what was happening. Overall, this play was truly the icing and cherry atop a delicious cake. It brought everything full circle while also educating those who were not familiar with the stories and mythology behind this Christmas demon.
Overall, having attended both the Krampus Run and the Krampus Play, I would have to say my love and obsession has only grown for this tradition. I loved seeing the excitement and playfulness that came from those who have been fans for years and years and also the awe and amazement from those who were just learning about Krampus for the first time. Al Ridenour has created something incredibly special with his Krampus Los Angeles events and has made the tradition come alive for so many people and I’m grateful to have been able to experience all of this for my first time and I look forward to celebrating the Krampus tradition for years to come.
St. Nicholas and these monsters presided over the 4th Annual Krampus Ball last night. Thanks to all who attended and helped pull together the best Krampus Ball ever!
Friday, December 2, 2016
Four our fourth year, we return to the charmingly old-world ballroom in Highland Park where Krampus feels most at home. Our emcee for the evening will be that friend of good children everywhere (and merciless judge of the naughty), our very own St. Nicholas. There will be plenty of treats and blessings from the good saint, and plenty of Austrian STIEGL BEER from our bartenders.
Returning in their embroidered lederhosen and dirndls G.T.E.V. D’OBERLANDLER once again brings a sampling of the folk music and dance of Alpine Bavaria where the Krampus makes his home. Expect more, furious bench-thumping dances, the spirited sole-slapping fury of the Schuhplattler, Christmas melodies picked out on tuned Alpine cowbells, and the melodic bellowing of those 10-foot twin Alphorns.
HAMMERSTEIN MUSIK BAVARIA
Fronted by Bavarian-born Andreas Becket, HAMMERSTEIN MUSIK BAVARIA plays everything from boot-stomping polkas to tears-in-your-beer ballads of die Liebe gone wrong. They’ll even give you some on-the-fly dance lessons. The 4-piece ensemble boasts award winning classical musicians, seasoned studio pros and an academically trained ethnomusicologist, but they still haven’t forgotten how to party like a drunken goatherd at his first Oktoberfest. They’ve even appeared in a recently much aired, high-camp Wienerschnitzel commercial touting their fast food as “sorta German.” And, yes, there will be yodeling.
Representing the heathen side of the season, the band IRONWISE explores darker, sometimes witchy themes. Singer Laura Shodire celebrates “those of iron-strong wisdom and will,” in lyrics delivered over an eclectic brew of folky rock doused in gothic ether. Tonight they even debut a song about the Krampus.
“THE ELFKING” with CHRISTINA LINHARDT and RASPUTIN’S MARIONETTES
Vocalist CHRISTINA LINHARDT will sing Schubert’s Der Erlkönig, (“Elf” or “Alder” King) from Goethe’s poem based upon old German legends. This supernatural tale of a sinister and mysterious being intent on seducing a child away from the world of mortals will be visualized by the puppet-masters of RASPUTIN’S MARIONETTES. Assistance will be provided by our own St. Nicholas, RICK GALIHER.
KRAMPUS LA TROUPE
At any point during the festivities, visitors may notice a gathering din of clanking cowbells telling them they are only moments from that moment the ballroom doors burst open and a massed attack by the two dozen or so devils and mountain spirits of KRAMPUS LA sweeps them into a maelstrom of horns and flicking switches. Pray that St. Nicholas can gain control of his malevolent slaves and save the evening! Percussion provided by TALEA.
BUY EARLY, COME EARLY. COOKIES & VENDORS.
Please purchase tickets early. DO NOT COUNT ON WALK-UP DOOR SALES. Every year this event sells out quite a bit before the date. Caveat emptor! Please also remember, this is an early show, over by midnight. And it’s earlier in the week than other years – FRIDAY NOT SATURDAY. In any case, you’ll want to early to allow yourself some extra moments to savor the surroundings, exchange pleasantries with other guests turned out in their yuletide best, snack on Pfeffernüsse. and snap some pictures of the still-fresh costumes. Krampus-inspired merchandise will be available from a few select vendors including AVE ROSE, MISS HAVISHAM’S CURIOSITIES, CHURCHYARD, GINGERBREAD CASKET, MISS FORMALDEHYDE, and XTABY JEWELRY. Free Guest Photo Booth by ZACHERY GARNER PHOTOGRAPHY.