MUNICH — Long before parents relied on the powers of Santa Claus to monitor their children’s behavior, their counterparts in Alpine villages called on a shaggy-furred, horned creature with a fistful of bound twigs to send the message that they had better watch out.
Tom Bierbaumer recalls the trepidation he felt every Dec. 6, when the clanging of oversize cowbells signaled the arrival of the Krampus, a devilish mountain goblin who serves as an evil counterpart to the good St. Nick. He would think back over his misdeeds of past months — the days he had refused to clear the supper table, left his homework unfinished or pulled a girl’s hair.
“When you are a child, you know what you have done wrong the whole year,” said Mr. Bierbaumer, who grew up in the Bavarian Alps and now heads a Munich-based club, the Sparifankerl Pass — Bavarian dialect for “Devil’s Group” — devoted to keeping the Krampus tradition alive. “When the Krampus comes to your house, and you are a child, you are really worried about getting a hit from his switch.”
Besides visiting homes with St. Nicholas, the Krampus has for centuries run through village and town centers spreading pre-Christmas fear and chasing away evil spirits. That tradition dwindled across much of Bavaria during the 1960s and ’70s, as postmodern society moved away from its rural past.
But with cultural homogenization spreading across an increasingly unified Europe, a new generation is bringing back the customs that defined their childhoods, and those of their parents and grandparents.
A decade ago, Mr. Bierbaumer, 46, persuaded Munich authorities to stage an old-fashioned Krampuslauf: a spectacle in which the fearsome seasonal beasts run through rows of adorned wooden huts at the Bavarian capital’s oldest holiday market. He saw it as a way to ensure that future generations would share his childhood ritual, which takes place between late November and Dec. 23. At that point, similar beasts, known as Perchta, take over the fun until Epiphany.
The Munich Krampuslauf celebrates the history of the custom, including the artistry of the hand-carved, hand-painted masks. Advocates of the ritual say reviving it is important because American Christmas customs, which they see as more commercialized, have made their way into the German holiday.
Only old-fashioned Krampus, mixed with their cousins, the Perchta, are allowed to participate in the Munich runs, held on the second and third Sundays before Christmas. To join the run, they must be dressed in wooden masks with horns and goat or sheep pelts, and carry bells and switches — though only for show.
Upholding the seasonal ritual is of “absolute importance,” said Günter Tschinder from Lavanttal in Austria’s Carinthia region.
“This is a tradition that our great-grandparents were already doing that must be handed down to the next generation,” said Mr. Tschinder, a member of the Höfleiner Moorteufel from Carinthia, one of 27 groups that participated in Munich this year. “But properly handed down, as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago, not with a lot of commercialization, like from Hollywood films.”
Local Krampus clubs will spend 1,800 to 2,500 euros, or about $2,200 to $3,000, each year to acquire costumes, made only from local materials found in the Alps. Masks are carved from lime, Swiss pine or alder wood. Skins come from farm animals such as sheep or goats, although no one turns away a Krampus wearing wild boar.
CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times
The dress code is not the only rule that the 400 creatures must abide by when rushing nearly a mile through the Christkindlmarkt crowds. The devilish enforcers of good behavior are themselves bound to uphold a strictly enforced decorum, including the cardinal rules of the modern, urban Krampus: No drinking! No hitting! Be nice!
Gabriele Papke, who helps organize Munich’s main Christkindlmarkt, on the Marienplatz square before the neo-Gothic turrets of the Neues Rathaus, stresses the importance of crowd-friendly and safe events.
Organizers estimate that this year’s holiday market attracted some 1.7 million people in its first two weeks alone, drawn by its hot mulled wine, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies and roasted candied almonds.
Its Krampus clubs are hand-selected, based in equal measure on the artistry of their costumes and their clean reputations. “People in Munich don’t know what to expect from the Krampus,” said Ms. Papke, and that is especially true of the thousands of tourists from across the globe who descend on the market. This year, a special event the day before the run allowed children to meet the people behind the masks and learn about the 500-year-old custom.
A Krampuslauf can easily get out of hand. The police in the Bavarian town of Immenstadt are searching for a Krampus with light-colored fur and a long bearded mask who whipped a 19-year-old during a parade there in early December, while those in Kufstein, Austria, canceled the annual event after removing illegal fireworks from several participants.
As men and women covered in furs, their masks tucked beneath their arms — no masks are allowed before or after the run — made their way to the Munich run’s starting point on a recent Sunday, the pounding of drums and clanging of cowbells echoed off the walls of narrow back streets. Edeltraudt Danzing and her husband, Kurt, looked on.
“This is a pagan tradition that belongs in the village,” said Mrs. Danzing, shaking her head at the spectacle in the Bavarian capital. “I am glad my grandchildren aren’t here, they would be terrified.”
Once the run began, some children ducked behind their parents’ legs as the horned beasts wound their way through the crowds, pulling boys’ caps down over their eyes, or ruffling claws through women’s hair. One Krampus made a game of pulling ponytails loose, looping the hairbands over his long, curved horns in a teasing game of Krampus ringtoss.
But other children grew bold as each Krampus or Perchta romped past, darting out to tug at their fur, reveling in the thrill of a roar or the threat of a tap from a switch.
Eight-year-old Marlene Michl insisted that she was not afraid — this year, anyway. “Last year was a lot more scary,” she said. “This year, I knew what was coming.”
By MELISSA EDDYEUROPE | MUNICH JOURNAL
HERE’S A BUNCH OF FUN PHOTOS AND KRUMPAS CARDS I’VE COLLECTED FOR SHARING AND LAUGHS…
additional content: Lee Sayer