I see her running towards me. She grabs my arms, twisting and pivoting to hide behind my back. «They’re coming!», she shouts.
She is blonde, small build, perfect body. The gentle features of girls raised in the mountains.
I look around. A wooden kiosk is stuffed with people who are holding glasses of steaming wine for warming their hands. Flashing lights adorn firs’ branches. Apparent calm.
I look back at her eyes, wide in terror.
This is the moment I see them coming.
I’ve come here in the afternoon. Igls, a small village a few kilometers away from Innsbruck, looked like a painting by Brueghel the Elder: silence, few people, the snow crackling beneath my feet.
At sunset, the mood is different. Adults arrive first. They shelter from the cold, drinking schnapps or mulled wine. Then the children. They line up and form a cordon along the main road. There’s air of celebration.
As the sun goes down, the excitement increases. A flock of angels follow a man disguised as a bishop, with a thick white beard, a crozier and a miter: he is Saint Nicholas. Children approach him, grab his dress, and seek protection from a gang of devils moving frantically, and pulling a huge burning chariot. They are Krampuses.
They have a sinister, wild, and fierce appearance in their heavy furs and scary masks: red eyes, animal-like grunts, canes ready to strike.
Tourists take pictures while keeping a cautious attitude; ready to run, if in danger. This is not Innsbruck, where the festival has a high degree of spectacularity. In Igls, the mood is dimmer but tenser: more authentic.
The Krampus is common to many German-speaking areas of the Alps. Northeastern Italy, Austria, but also other countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, and Lichtenstein.
This festival is based on a legend on the life of Saint Nicholas. The Saint went to a village tormented by devils. He tamed them, but their wild nature wasn’t completely appeased. Today, those devils are bogeys, who escort Saint Nicholas during his journey to deliver gifts.
Their appearance marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations but their birth can be traced back to the pre-Christian traditions of the winter solstice, which survived over the centuries in areas that, for a long time, were closed off to the influence of the church.
Like the Sol Invictus, St. Nicholas is the light, which defeats the darkness of a month characterized by the shortest days of the year.
Young people who turn into Krampus can publicly show their secret, animal side and release their dark forces: but only through a mask. Removing it in public, it’s a shame.
The devils chase children but don’t spare adults and elderly, hitting the legs of anyone on their path. When they identify some fellow citizen, they surround and attack him. Some daring boys provoke them, who react even more violently.
Despite tourists, this ritual has a rich sensorial character: the scent of leather and burning wood, the fragrance of resin. The smell of alcohol that some Krampus has abused before “unleashing” himself in the street. The dark sound of the bells tied to their heavy costumes, their loud animal-like grumble, the buck knock-offs of canes, the screams of children. And the sight of the fire, freeing millions of tiny burning particles to the sky.
The girl hidden behind my shoulders is still trembling. I bring my arms back to hug her. I would never have imagined that this tradition could still create such a terror in the heart of a young local woman in her twenties.
Chases and pursuits last for hours. Tourists are exhausted. Most have gone. The girl thanked me. She went back home as well.
A single Krampus is still wandering around. He will go on, whipping and chasing someone as long as he has the strength, on this crazy cold night.