Saturday, December 20, 2008

Santa's Nasty Friends

Many European countries, and immigrant groups in the US, have legends about the evil companions who ride with St. Nick to inflict terrible harm on boys and girls who misbehave. Black Pete, Ruprecht, Belsnickel are some of the more infamous characters. But for sheer terror, you can't beat Krampus. Derived from "krampen," an old German word for claw, this creature is an enormous, shaggy, horned monster carrying rusty bells that make an awful racket and toting switches or sticks to beat the daylights out of anyone in his way. Krampus festivals in Germany and Austria occur in early December, when hordes of young men dressed as these creatures parade through the streets. They sometimes take things too far, assaulting people and often targeting young women. According to this 2004 opinion piece by Timothy Ryback in the Wall Street Journal, each year there is a debate about the tradition:

Should inebriated young men in oversized gorilla suits, with grotesquely carved, horned visages the size of a buffalo head and clanging cowbells strapped to their midriff, be allowed to assault women in public with impunity, generally to the merriment of crowds of onlookers, except, of course, for those who are shrieking or fleeing in terror?

Ryback details the ugliness:

For a full week during the start of the holiday season, scores of Krampuses stalk the cobbled ways of Salzburg and its surrounding villages... They stalk young women, fondling them, throwing them over their shoulders and whipping them with wooden switches until their shins and thighs are black and blue. They prowl the streets, wander onto public buses, and storm downtown restaurants where, after assaulting female patrons, they are treated to free schnapps to fuel their further fury. The anonymity provided by the Krampus mask combined with increasing amounts of alcohol consumption is not only feeding the violence but also a debate about this bizarre pagan holdover from a less civilized era.

Important note: The video clip above is from Graz, and it seems to be relatively organized and free of violence. If anyone has witnessed these events, please write in. Are they as bad throughout Germany and Austria as the events Ryback describes in Salzburg?

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