Who is Krampus and how are Krampus Masks Made?
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. Who is Krampus? And how are Krampus Masks made for the night of Krampuslauf? We found out in Austria’s Salzburg…..
Who is Krampus?
The Krampus masks are all about Krampuslauf, a procession that happens in December each year when hundreds of costumed locals run through the streets of Austrian towns dressed as Krampus. Thousands turn out to see these Bavarian spectacles. What is Krampus? Or more specifically who is Krampus? 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.
How are Krampus masks made?
How are Krampus masks made? “If the knife is really sharp, and the wood is really good, it’s like butter.” says artist 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.
What is Krampuslauf? – a demon sprint
In local folklore, while Santa is all about rewarding the good kids, Krampus is all about sniffing out the bad ones and handing out punishment for their misdemeanors. I have been fascinated by Krampus and the annual December run or Krampuslauf since I saw the spectacle on Youtube. There is also a big budget Hollywood Movie ‘Krampus’ which ramped up interest for a while. 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 Krampuslauf 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 wearing Krampus masks in US cities and I suspect they may wind up on our shores at some point.
In Austria and Germany the event traditionally takes 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 or devil horns. Their bodies are covered in skins or fur of animals, the heads are carved out of wood. This is where Stefan comes in with his tailored Krampus masks .
The face of the Krampus masked 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 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 Stefan explains how he makes Krampus masks.
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. “Krampus 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.