The Making of Krampus: Be Naughty or Nice?
Do you reward your kids for good behaviour or punish them for bad deeds? In European tradition both impulses are celebrated when Alpine towns bring legend to life with the annual pre-Christmas Krampus Run. But what is a Krampus and how are they made? We found out in Salzburg…..
The Krampus run
The Krampuslauf or Krampus Run happens in December each year when hundreds of costumed locals run through the streets of Austrian towns in Bavaria dressed as Krampus. Thousands turn out to see these spectacles, kids, parents and monsters. A Krampus is a cross between goat and demon and its role in folklore is to punish kids who have been naughty – basically Santa’s evil twin.
The making of Krampus
“If the knife is really sharp, and the wood is really good, it’s like butter.” says Stefan Koidl, neatly slicing off a slither of wood. But I’m pretty sure this brand of butter would only go on the Devil’s toast.
In the Salzburg Advent Market people stop and stare wide eyed through the window at Stefan’s wooden Krampus masks and some children shy away. I’m not surprised really, in a few days these scary heads will be looming down at them in the crowd while furry bodies brandish a birch whip and eyes whip around in search of disobedient small people.
The Krampuslauf – a demon sprint
In local folklore, while Santa is all about rewarding the good kids, the Krampus are all about sniffing out the bad ones and handing out punishment for their misdemeanors. I have been fascinated by the Krampus and their annual December run since I saw the spectacle on Youtube. There is also a big budget Hollywood Movie ‘Krampus’ which ramped up interest last year. If you’re struggling to picture the sight, think of the Krampuslauf as a marathon where everyone looks evil, carries birch bundles instead of water bottles and shows no sign of tiring.
A spreading Alpine tradition
The Krampus runs traditionally take place in Alpine areas of Austria, Italy and Germany although they do happen in other European countries like Croatia and the Czech Republic. There’s a growing trend of Krampus nights in US cities and I suspect they may wind up on our shores at some point.
In Austria and Germany the event traditionally take place on 5th December – the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas. On this night – ‘Krampusnacht,’ the devilish goat creatures appear on the streets, sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas, who is often dressed as a bishop. They are armed with coal and birch switches as an antidote to Santa’s gifts. And they are after a different demographic to Santa– naughty kids. The aim? To scare them into behaving.
Krampus come in many shapes and sizes, but most have nasty faces, lolling snake-like tongues, and goat/devil horns in common. Their bodies are covered in skins or fur of animals, the heads are carved out of wood. This is where Stefan comes in.
The face of the beast
Stefan trained in infomatics but began carving Krampus masks five year ago. He is self taught and at the moment making the heads is still a hobby but next year he plans to scale it up into a self employed business. He reckons if he works hard he can make up to two a week.
“The professional woodcarvers are making around a hundred Krampus a year,” he tells me.
He is half way through making a face and many of the demon features are already there; horns and hair will come later. To start the process, Stefan meets with the prospective wearer and gets their ideas and input. There is no need for measuring.
“I can look at the person’s face and I know if it is a big, small or medium head.”
Stefan sketches out a face on paper, puts a chunk of bark on a stick and starts copying the design on the paper into the wood. Finally he uses a chainsaw to strip the inside of the mask so it can fit on a head.
Check out this video where he explains how he makes a mask.
Designed to scare the kids
So who inhabits the body of a Krampus? It’s not a secret club where you sell your soul for a mask. Anyone can buy a costume. But if you’re looking for something that looks convincing you will pay anything from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. There are many mask makers in Austria and more springing up as the tradition is revived.
“Everyone has a unique style,” says Stefan who can tell just by looking at a head who carved it.
He explains some of the newer woodcarvers are making them out of wood and then moulding with latex, which is reinventing the craft.
Catch them if you can
“You never saw them?” Stefan questions me. “It’s really cool. You get maybe 600 dressed and running through the streets, all noisy and with smoke in the air. The Krampus runs are usually on Dec 5th and 6th, but between the middle of November and the middle of December you can find them around the towns and cities and at special events.”
He is proud that his city is leading the way. “The runs traditionally take place in parts of upper Italy, Austria and the south of Germany. The hotspot is here in Salzburg,” he grins.
I ask him if he will be running on 5th and he shows me his costume. The most impressive Krampus of them all.