What better time to talk about that special kind of month we so fondly refer to as Christmas, than in the middle of a bright and glorious summer. There is no better time, I tell you. Especially when you’ve neglected your blog for almost a year and cannot afford the luxury of relevant posting.
Christmas is a big thing in Vienna, as it is in most of the Western World. A beautiful time of year when the city’s elaborate, classical buildings are decked out in finery and twinkling lights. Christmas markets cram every available space and huge Christmas trees tower over the people below. Its a sharp contrast to the countryside which lies bare and grey, it’s life sucked away by the biting cold.
It’s certainly very pretty and I highly recommend a weekend Christmas trip to the city. If I had had less work, I would probably have enjoyed a more heightened experience, but instead I had to make do with what little time I could afford to spend, and attended only a few Christmasy events, though I did enjoy the walk to and from my train under the soft glow of golden Christmas lights.
The Christmas market at Vienna’s Rathaus was closest to me. (that is city hall: funny that rat means advice in German, though I’m sure the satire of calling a government building a Rat House is not entirely lost on German speakers.) Naturally, thats where I went.
Of course this represents only the more commercial side of Christmas. Austria itself has its own unusual traditions. December itself is regarded as a holiday month, rather than just the Christmas break and the month is packed full of saints and feasts days. However, while these are common in Catholic Europe, Austria does have its own, unique and utterly horrifying celebration.
Picture the scene, if you may. There I am, collecting groceries for my twice-weekly shop (theres no oven or freezer in my flat), outside the store, a crowd of children excitedly wait to meet St Nicholas in his grotto, so as to ask him for various wonderful gifts. The shopping centre itself is decked out in beautiful festive decorations and busy shoppers deftly avoid the crowd of happy children and waiting parents. When suddenly, that peace is shattered by a monstrous roar. Emerging from nowhere comes a demon. Covered in thick, corse hair, much like a goat, it roars and snarls at the children. It’s eyes glow a horrible green and its face is a twisted contortion of bestial rage. It towers over the shoppers and long, curled horns stretch out from it’s skull. It moves from child to child, threateningly displaying a switch made of birch while bells clanker around it’s waist. Some children scream and cry, while others laugh or smile, all the while clinging to the safety of their parents, who look on with mild amusement. I for one was shocked and had to hold on tight to my shopping bags. A second monster emerges, even bigger than the last. This one carries swinging chains and a massive staff in one hand. It then holds up a wooden horn and blows into it. The unholy cacophony fills the shopping centre.
It is December 5th. Krampusnacht. The Night of the Krampuses.
What in holy Christmas name is a Krampus, I hear you ask. Well unwary reader, Krampus is an goat/demon…um…monster, that punishes bad children at Christmas time, in contrast to Saint Nick, who rewards good ones. You see, Austrians couldn’t have such a kindly man like Saint Nick hurt a small child, so they came up with the 7ft monstrosity that is Krampus, who gladly beats, drowns and eats children, or simply takes them off to hell himself. Of course most of the Austrian children are use to it, and gather affectionally behind the Krampuses, following them on their journey around the city. However for foreigners like me, I couldn’t help but think them all mad. However, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the extraordinary efforts put into each and every costume. Each one looked amazingly realistic, and some even possessed LED lights in their eyes, to give them a devilish glow.
Krampus isn’t solely Austrian, as he’s more of an alpine figure, who may have pre-Christian roots. But Austria really goes all out for Krampusnacht, which takes place the day before St Nick’s Day. Krampuses, big and small, stalk the streets during the day, frightening children where ever they go.
Then, at night, they all gather for the Krampusfest.
And of course I went along to see it.
The festival took place within Schloss Neugebaude, an old castle that was only a short bus journey from my flat. The evening itself is a festive affair, with stalls thick with food and beer. However, soon the crowds gathered at the front of the gates to the castle. Fighting for space among the throngs of people, I watched as St Nick stepped out of the gates, angelic music accompanying him. Affectionally, he threw sweets into the crowd of children, though he purposefully avoided me, I’m sure of it. But, St Nick then left and the music changed to a thumping techno. At last, the festival could begin.
Krampuses poured out of the castle gates, like bats from a cave, whooping and hollering as their eyes gleamed maliciously. They came wielding torches of fire, which they proceeded to toss and turn with frightening skill. While some then growled and threatened the audience, I saw another consume a strange liquid. As I watched, he held his torch to his lips and blew. The torch then whooshed out in a great explosion of fire and the crowd cheered. Safe behind a protective fence, we all watched as the Krampuses preformed their fiery act to the beat of the techno. Near the end, one brought out a cauldron of fire, and as each Krampus threw in a different power, flames of green, violet and red seemed to burst forth from the pot.
All to soon though it was over, and the cold Austrian winter returned. It was about the most Austrian thing I’d ever seen. Its a shame though that I only took one video of the event, though to be fair, there was so many people pushing for space that it was hard to see anything at all. Definitely one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Vienna, and I’ll make sure to wish my friends, when December 5th comes calling, a very happy Krampusnacht.