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Salzburg: The Krampus run

Night descended on Salzburg’s busy marketplace well over an hour ago. People of all ages stand in the crowd, milling between the warmly lit wooden stalls of the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt, the traditional Christmas market on the square in front of the city’s baroque cathedral.

Salzburg: The Krampus run

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Some are shuffling to stay warm while others are moving nervously in anticipation of the imminent arrival of St Nicholas and his band of helpers.

In the distance, I hear screams, laughter and the dull din of metal being thumped. A figure wearing a shaggy, body-length costume of furs and a demonic-looking mask topped with twisted animal horns bursts through the crowd. Cowbells hung from a leather belt around his waist clap discordantly as he moves.

Thanks to the chill of the night air, his breath billows visibly from under the grotesque mask, making me think of a smoke-breathing dragon. He pauses to look me over, then slaps me playfully with the stick of birch he’s carrying. I laugh but a nearby child bursts into tears and presses himself against his mother’s body for protection. We’ve just made our acquaintance with Krampus.

Looking up, I see a dozen or so Krampus figures stalking between onlookers. They are participating in a Krampuslauf, or Krampus run — a noisy Alpine tradition whose origins can be traced to the 15th century. I note that the group of furry, horned figures is entering the Christmas market from both sides of the cathedral’s facade. They meet in the middle, greeting each other by rubbing up against one another, like animals meeting in the wild.

Tonight, on 5 December, the scary-looking Krampus figures accompany a man dressed as St Nicholas and young women playing the role of his angels. Tomorrow morning, the feast day of St Nicholas, small gifts such as chocolates will be distributed to children who’ve behaved themselves over the course of the year. According to local beliefs, anyone who’s been naughty can expect a visit from St Nicholas’s enforcer, Krampus.

The Krampus figures elicit a mixed reaction from onlookers. Some bystanders giggle nervously, others look fearful and some take photos, presumably for Facebook or their family albums.

A young woman standing next to me screams. Afterwards, I ask her why. “Of course, there are people behind the masks, and sometimes we know them, but once they put the masks on they’re totally different people,” explains Teresa, from Salzburg. “Out in the countryside, the groups can be really boisterous. It’s mainly fun but they can sometimes be rough.”

Thankfully, this Krampus run, a long-established event, is all good-natured fun. But it’s also charged with symbolic meaning. When St Nicholas speaks, the Krampuses fall silent, representing a victory of good over evil.

The people dressed as Krampus must be warm under their thick furs but the cold of the night is getting to me. It’s time for me to head to the nearest market stall selling gluehwein (mulled wine) and order a warming drink.