In the distance we hear the metallic rattle of cow bells and voices. The dark road is lined by spectators shivering with expectation and cold. Finally, a group of people walk down the hill – Saint Nicholas, the Holy Bishop, accompanied by a strange medley of other characters including angels as well as witches with scraggy hair, large hooked noses, and brooms. And then, behind them, the Krampuses come in sight: Dozens of wild hairy figures with scary faces and huge bells attached to their backs. They stomp down the road in a strange unified gait that makes the bells rattle and sometimes reach out to grab bystanders.
The Krampus is an Alpine devilish creature whose origins are unknown but who appears at the beginning of winter to scare (and beat) the villagers. For centuries, Krampuses have accompanied St. Nicholas to provide the punishment for those who didn't behave well and thus don't deserve the presents the Saint is handing out especially to children. In some regions in Bavaria and Austria, Nicholas has not become Santa Claus, and his holy day is still 6 December – which is also the climax of the Krampus activities.
In Lienz, the main town of the little-known Austrian region of East Tyrol (formally a part of Tyrol but not geographically linked to the rest of that prefecture), anyone who wants to take part in the Krampus rally has to be a member of the Krampus Association. No women are admitted, and the association guards tradition, determining which costumes and masks are appropriate. In contrast to some other Austrian towns, Krampuses in Lienz don't have horns, and they don't look inspired by Hollywood horror movies. On the other hand, the association has agreed to a fixed route for the parade and barriers behind which spectators can watch safely. A generation ago, early December was still a dangerous time to walk the streets of Lienz. "But nowadays we all have to work the next day, we can't afford broken limbs…," chief Krampus Kurt explains.
Once St. Nicholas is done with his round handing out sweets to the children behind the barriers, he disappears for a while and leaves the Krampuses less restrained. They run up and down with much clamour, and whoever dares to stand in their way (mostly young men) gets hurled down on the street. Running with their heavy fur clothes and the huge bells on their back that can weigh up to 15 kg, the Krampuses can gain enough momentum to wrestle down most opponents. According to etiquette, they help up each other afterwards and walk on. Security guards nowadays keep an eye on Krampuses as well as on their challengers.
After two hours Saint Nicholas, the angels, the witches and the Krampuses make their way into the old town, where the Krampus performers take off the masks and run around in circles for almost ten minutes. Most are utterly exhausted by now from running and fighting for several days – but also happy and proud to be holding up an old tradition. Kurt, the chief Krampus, still has a smile and some energy left. After all, he is also responsible for the smaller parade of St. Nicholas and the Krampus Children the next day, when Krampuses-in-training as young as three or four years walk in the scary heavy costumes through town.
We found the Krampus rally a very authentic experience. In spite of the barriers, and in spite of knowing about the Krampuses being men dressed up in fur and masks, the sight and sound of dozens of them running in our direction was somewhat scary. We weren't afraid of anything happening, but when one of the beasts suddenly grabbed Natascha's head over the barrier she was terrified for an instant. "Like it?" the monster then said in a friendly voice, and turned out to be Kurt.
So, if you visit a Krampus rally, try to befriend some locals beforehand who might take part and frighten you!