-A Krampusization of the first verse of 'O Captain! My Captain!' by Walt Whitman
And so we come to it at last, Krampus fest 2010! For anyone who has been wondering just what the hell Krampus is, and why I've been making such a fuss over it for the last several posts, hopefully this one will explain our love for it. The last time I was at Krampus was in aught 6, so it was really great to hit it again at long last. Here's a distant glimpse of a pack of demons led through the lower part of town by St. Nick as they make their early house calls.
Krampus fest is awesome. In a nutshell, on every 5th of December many small mountain villages from the area around Berchtesgaden send a Krampus delegation consisting of a band of demons led by the village's St. Nick stand-in. St. Nick will usually have a couple of little girls dressed as angels following close to his side, ringing small chimes to warn of their approach. The demons come in a few different types. Some wear simple furs with a furry dog-face looking mask, and carry whips. Some wear furs with a more elaborate wooden hand-carved demon face mask, sometimes with cowbells strapped to their backs, and carry whips. And others are covered in straw, usually with the wooden masks, always with the cowbells strapped on their backs, and carry whips.
The delegations converge upon Berchtesgaden for the official Krampus opening ceremony. It was really crowded during the daytime this year, so we were unable to get close to the square where they had it, but I've seen it before so I can describe the gist of it. Basically what happens is that St. Nicholas, in an effort to make the human race behave more admirably than is it's wont, meets up with an old friend of his, a shady character named Knecht Ruprecht. St. Nicholas asks to borrow the demons that are under Knecht's control for two days and nights, that he might lead them into battle for the souls of children. The German Bundeswehr, a military outfit, supervises the handing-over ceremony. If negotiations go smoothly they promptly escort Knecht and themselves out of town, essentially handing control of Berchtesgaden over to the demons of St. Nick for the duration.
This is where it gets scary. So in order to wage war against the sins of mankind, St. Nicholas orders the demons to begin their rampage. Krampus demons, being demonic, are able to sense the sinful. Sniffing out their own kind, as such. They know if you've been naughty, and when they find you, they use the combined psychological warfare tactics of being damned scary looking, their towering Bavarian farmer-like sizes, and the maddening sound of the cowbells of hell in order to make you flee in terror. And when you flee, that's when they chase you, and use the whips.
You see they're no Disney whips, this is a serious business. They whap! you pretty hard with those things on the back of the knees or thighs, and it stings. The purpose of the whipping is to beat the sins out of you. St. Nicholas, being the kind saint that he is, wants to be able to give the little German children presents on Christmas morning and the only way to insure that he doesn't have to leave anyone out is by punishing them for the past year's sins first. It's quite an elegant system, if you think about it. No coal in the stockings, or wooden shoes or however they do it there. No child left behind. Whap!
It starts off fairly tamely in the late afternoon. The crowds of onlookers are thick, and the demon packs roam about town in fairly orderly fashion, whacking the occasional bystander who sticks out from the crowd a bit too much. The Krampus fest coincides with Berchtesgaden's Christkindlemarkt, so there are plenty of places to stop and grab a gluwein or a beer and some wurst or spätzle while shadowing a particularly fun bunch of demons. There's even a bit of time to... do... some... window... shopping?
Erm... I love it. I'm not sure if little armless goat/tree boy here has anything to do with Krampus, but for him to just sort of appear in a wood carver's window amongst other more standard shop fare is fairly indicative of how awesome Berchtesgaden is. Is he supposed to be vomiting twigs? Anyway. As the night carries on, things get a bit rowdier. The demons get drunker and start hitting harder, the crowds get thinner, and those who stay get numb from both the cold and the whippings. And drunker.
Gluhwein comes in those nice little mugs. The above scene is a demon showing a rare bit of selective craftiness. He'd reached over John there to grab the mug of gluhwein from the young lady in order to lure her away from the table, where he proceeded to whip the tar out of her. I sort of can't believe she fell for it, but she was pretty young, after all. Very young, John. [Ahem.] Shows you they do in fact know who needs a good whipping.
You may have noticed that the hands and arms of the demons are covered in a greasy soot. They tend to rub their hands over the faces of their victims, leaving a sooty hand-print. I'm not sure exactly why; logically I would guess they do this so as to leave a message for the other demons that this one has been taken care of, move along, but I haven't noticed that the demons leave previously-marked victims alone any more than anyone else. Indeed, sometimes it seems as though the mark is given to single out those who need more attention than usual, and may end the night having been beaten several times.
Young women in particular do seem to get singled out more often. But if I explore this thought it leads into uncomfortable examinations of German sexuality and the whole town seems to view this behavior as a healthy and normal outlet for the youth once a year so I suppose we'll leave it at that as no harm, no foul. Or rather; not too much harm other than a slight stinging and a few morning after bruises, no foul.
Creeeeepy. But then, this isn't supposed to be charming. It is an ancient tradition and despite the rather gleefully dark connotations of the whole thing, is actually religious in nature. As such, there are certain aspects of Krampus that should be taken seriously which, I am ashamed to admit, in my younger and more vulnerable years I did not realize. Pretty much anything goes at Krampus but the main thing is that during the festivities, the demons are in charge. It is not appreciated when some wise-ass American stands up to them. I know that sounds crazy; I mean look at these guys, who would have the nerve to stand up to them anyway?!
Well it happens. Some stupid drunk American thinks he's braver than most people and flits about, trying to steal a whip, or simply standing in the middle of the road forcing a confrontation just to display how unafraid of getting a whap! behind the knees he is. Sometimes the demon ignores him, but often, especially the later it gets, said dumb-ass American finds himself on his back on the cobblestones after having been the victim of a running tackle and shoved 15 feet through the air across the road. And then group-whipped repeatedly. Usually the victim is too stupid to realize this is a severe reprimand of his behaviour and instead mistakes it for "all in good fun". Sheesh.
One of the greatest of the worst-kept secrets of Krampus fest in Berchtesgaden is the Goldener Bär, (The Golden Bear) a solidly good German restaurant with an Italian restaurant upstairs. If you sneak through the Goldener Bär, then sneak upstairs, there is a balcony which overlooks a hidden courtyard behind the building. And in this courtyard is a sort of staging/pow wow/rest area for the Krampus demons. It is a very long, exhausting two days for these guys, dressing in heavy costumes and running around all day whipping people and ringing bells. They need the occasional break to rest up, drink some beer, howl like demons, and party it up on their own. And of course a place for me to get some good shots. Here St. Nicholas is basking in the worship of his demons.
Austria has this brand of chocolates named after Mozart. They are dainty little bon-bons, and cardboard cutouts of Mozart displaying a box of them are ubiquitous in the Alps. Apparently, Krampus demons thought Mozart needed a good whipping this year. Off with his head!
And this seems a little dangerous to me but hay, if a demon needs his nicotine, I for one am not standing in his way. (misspelling intended, haw haw!) A flaming straw demon would have been pretty scary anyway, and I was ready, if disappointed, with my camera.
The balcony overlooking the courtyard is really a great spot. Next time we go I will try and borrow someone's video camera so I can catch all the action. The cowbells from hell, the chanting, the howling, the demonic singing. I love it! One of the demons needed to use the demon loo and came up and was trying to get by us. I think he scared Nimmer a little.
As for myself, one of my favorite places to rest my whipped buns and weary feet with a beer is upstairs, at that Italian restaurant I was telling you about. They serve good European style pizza and of course wonderful German beer, but most importantly it's very warm and not usually too crowded. So Gerald, Julie and I took a break up there for some quiet replenishment when some of our friends came in for a quiet rest of their own!
The above photo was taken with Julie's camera by a demon, and believe it or not it was their idea! I don't think any of us had the courage to ask for a photo but it turns out this was a really friendly pair. They just came over and plopped down next to us and began a half-hour or so of friendly chat. Of course, they didn't speak much English and my German is minimal, but it was educational nonetheless. Julie took this one.
The demons were obviously friends. The one you've seen here is a giant Bavarian man, and would be extremely intimidating even without the getup. His friend was a much smaller man, and they made an amusing pair. Julie got this fantastic photo as well.
The smaller demon allowed Julie to try on his mask. I can't believe she asked him if she could; I was still terrified of them. Perhaps I have too many preconceptions about Krampus Nacht to be able to separate the guys wearing the masks from the traditions they represent.
When I tell people about Krampus, I get very mixed reactions. Some people think it sounds like the coolest thing ever but more often, people just think it sounds stupid. "Why would you want to let a bunch of scary men in costumes whip you?! You're weird and a little gay, dude." That always surprises me. It's an experience like none you'd ever be allowed to have in the States. I mean, people like the idea of running with the bulls, or going to that crazy tomato festival. This is along the same lines as those but much more fun in a way more primal.
Notice I got greased on the top of my head. I think they like to take advantage of such a landing deck when they can. Anyway, I hope I've managed to get across why Krampus is awesome and not stupid and a little gay to anyone reading this who might be new to the whole thing.
So that was Krampus 2010. It was awesome, and really great to see my friend Nimmer again and meet his girlfriend and his friend John, and it was great to have Gerald along as well; he was one of the few who thought it sounded awesome the first time he heard about it so it's nice to see it get appreciated. It wound up being a really fun group of people. I was bummed that other Krampus companions of years past were unable to make it, but maybe next time. However the best thing about Krampus this year was being able to share it with Julie, who has had to listen to me yammer on about it and Germany for the last 4 years and finally got to see for herself. She had a really great time and now when I yammer on about it, she can join in. She and I stayed in Berchtesgaden for two more days after Krampus in order to recuperate from three weeks on the road and a nasty bug. I'd never done that before but A) Berchtesgaden is a near ghost town after the fest and B) the perfect place to decompress at the end of a Honeymoon. The hotel Bavaria had a Turkish bath and sauna in their private spa room, and we took full advantage. And two more delicious German dinners at the Goldener Bär are nothing to pass up. Well, until next time, may visions of gluhwein and whip-bearing demons dance in our heads.