“Silent night, holy night. All is calm….”
That is until the faint sound of bells begins to be heard on the 5th of December in the Alpine valleys of Germany. No, we aren’t talking about the beautiful sounds of church bells inviting villagers to come celebrate the wonders of Christmas.
No, everyone knows when they hear these bells, which will linger on into the late night, that it is something much more sinister. Something devlish. The bells begin to echo in the whole valley off of the mountains and they begin to draw near. The hair on the back of your skin begins to stand as the anticipation grows…
Krampus is coming.
While I’ve lived in Germany now for the better part of a decade, I’ve found it really difficult to write a blog post about the German Beast Counterpart to St. Nick- the terrifying Krampus.
Not because I don’t know the story behind him, or even not for lack of attending frightfully delightful Krampus events in Bavaria. No, instead, because each time I sit down to write about Krampus, I struggle to put into writing exactly what emotions, ambiance, and excitement go behind Krampusnacht in Germany. In fact, because I’m just a mere Ausländer in Germany (AKA foreigner) and did not grow up with the reverence that many Bavarian children did for this devil-like creature, I have been fearful not only of Krampus himself, but that I simply can’t do the tradition justice.
However, because it is such a special night in Germany and so many people continue to want to know more and more about Krampus, I’m going to do my best.
Who Is Krampus
If you don’t know the origin of Krampus yet, this half goat half devil is the counter part to the traditional St. Nicklaus in parts of Southern Bavaria. While St. Nick comes bearing goodies and treats for good kiddos, Krampus snatches up any naughty children and steals them aware to his lair, eats them, or “simply” just gives them a good beating with a wooden rod.
Yup. Germans take the whole “If your naughty, you’ll get a lump of coal” thing to a whooooole new level!
What Does Krampus Look Like?
Depending on where in Germany or Austria you are (or what Krampus Festival you’re at), Krampus today may take a few different forms (this also depends on which Krampus you see…but more on the different “kinds” in a bit).
The most popular part of his look is the Krampus Mask, which traditionally is a hand carved, demonic looking face. Most will have horns and fangs. Some have unusually long, pointy noises and/or chins. Their bodies are typically covered in fur and their feet are hooves. Some will have chains while others have huge, giant bells. The ones that have chains are believed to be devilish like beasts, where the ones with ginormous bells actually are “Percthen” which often use their bells to drive away evil spirits.
In other areas, such as Bercthesgaden, instead of fur, the Krampus costume may be made of straw, but this is known more as the “Buttnmandl”
However, depictions in the 1800s almost always show Krampus as being a black, furry beast. The bottom half of his body is like a goat, with hooves and he is almost always seen shackled up in chains. He has long pointy ears and a rolling red tongue that can reach out and grab children. He is typically holding a pitchfork and birch branches for whipping.
The History of Krampus
So where is Krampus from? Well, nobody is exactly sure, but most believe he originated in what is today’s Austro-Bavarian region (Salzburgerland) which includes Berchtesgaden (Germany), Salzburg, and St. Johann im Pongau (Austria) among other Alpine towns, however, he is especially popular in the South Tirol region of Austria as well.
While most sources say that Krampus originated from pagan traditions, some believe that’s not true at all. Instead, if you study Krampus, not much of this can be historically connected to specific pagan beliefs at all. Instead, he looks almost identical to the medieval depictions of what Catholics believe the Devil himself looked like- bound with chains, horned, long tongue, etc. And if you look at Catholic history, the real Saint Nicholaus (of Myra) is often credited with being an exorcist, so it would make sense that the two are a formidable pair.
So, while Germans often get a bad rep for being frightening, nobody does “scare the kids with nightmare stories” like Catholics (believe me, I was raised Catholic!) I guess put the two together and BAM! You’ve got yourself a Krampusnacth!!!!!
Krampus is most known in the Southern Alps of Germany and even more popular in Austria. Each region may have its own take on Krampus, but traditionally speaking, Krampus still comes on December 5th to accompany St. Nicholaus.
St. Nick will wander the villages greeting the children, and right next to him, is mean ol’ Krampus. There is often a parade where spectators can watch, but in some places, it’s not just a spectator sport! Be prepared to be chased and even possibly get whipped!
For regions that revere this long standing tradition, boys as young as 16 can be initiated into a Krampus Group (They call it a “Pass” in Austria and a “Bass” in Germany) but once he’s married (at least in some locations) then he’s booted out.
A Traditional Visit by Krampus (Bayern)
One of the most popular areas for the German Krampus is in the Bercthesgadenerland. Here, the tradition goes back to the 16th century, and even today, the charade of how the Krampus visits still live on in the villages with the locals and families. While the legend of Krampus sounds terrifying, for anyone who grew up with this event, it’s actually an incredibly special, magical atmosphere that takes over the village on the 5th of December.
First, the Kramperl (or in Berchtesgaden, they are often referred to as Buttnmandl) gather atop of the mountain to survey the valleys and land below. It is an ominous site knowing that in just moments, these beasts will descend onto the village!
But first, the group (Bass) will gather to say prayers, such as the Our Father, Ave Maria, and the Angel of the Lord. Traditionally, a farmer’s wife would bless them with holy water.
A traditional Bass will include at least 3 Krampus alongside St. Nick, who is sure to keep those wildings in order.! There is often an Angel (sometimes the Christkind) that accompanies the Bass as well.
So, next, the Bass goes from house to house. When they arrive, it’s customary for the homeowner (and/or St. Nick) to shower the Buttnmandl with holy water to help tame them and then St. Nick demands the beast to rest. They may sing a few songs or say some prayers next for good measure.
Then, St. Nick pulls out his list of good deeds that children have done. Yes, he really does have a book ready and prepared to read aloud what good deeds Sally has performed this year. He’ll call on the kids one by one and read aloud from his book things that he “saw” them do that were kind or “good” behaviors that year. The kids also may sing a few songs or say some prayers next to really try to get on his good side.
Traditionally, St. Nick would then hand out goodies of fruit and nuts and maybe some chocolate. For fun, the Buttnmandl will often find a “naughty” person in the family to “throw out in the snow” such as a giggling teenager or willing father. The whole Bass then moves onto the next house to do the whole charade again. It can take all evening and throughout the following day (Dec 6th) to get through all the houses in the villages.
And for you women reading this, if you get whipped by Krampus, watch out, as it’s said that you’ll be extra fertile!
Tip: In many places (basically anywhere where you see the word “Run”) the spectacle of Krampus has taken on a whole touristic vibe. If you want to experience the true Krampus (the beast that is merely a subdued sidekick of St. Nick) then it’s best to find a smaller, local village to experience an authentic Krampusnacht.
Other Names For Krampus
Depending on the region your in, or even what tradition the locals are practicing, you may see several different names.
Kramperl: This is a more “Bayerisch” (Bavarian) term for Krampus
Knecht Ruprecht: Knecht Ruprecht and Krampus are actually not the same, but the idea of scaring little children into behaving is similar enough and they are both “celebrated” on St. Nicholas Day. Just like Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht tags along with St. Nick but instead of being Devil-like, he’s just a bit more on the mischievous side. Instead of terrifying wooden masks, Knecht Ruprecht is typically seen wearing a long robe with a pointed hat. He is more commonly found in areas around Franconia (Northern Bavaria), especially at places like the Nuremberg Christmas Market, which is often considered one of the Best Christmas Markets in Germany.
Belsnickl: Very similar to Krampus, Belsnickl is more common in the Saarland region of Germany (the area that borders France)
Teufel: Now this actually very much translates to “Devil” Many different Pass or Bass groups will call themselves Tuefels (usually in conjunction with their town’s name)
Buttnmandl: Most common in the Berchtesgadenerland and come with a “Bass” (or group) where there are at least 3 Buttnmandl, 1 St. Nick, and often an Angel.
Percthen: Perchten also aren’t actually Krampus, but many times these creatures get easily confused with Krampus. I’ll talk more about Percthen below but there are two kinds of Pertcthen
- Schönperchten (good Perchten- they bring good luck and chase out evil spirits)
- Schiachperchten (“bad” Percthen- similar to Krampus)
*Percthen actually don’t traditionally come on December 5th or 6th, but instead during the “Rauchtnacht” which is a period between Christmas and the Epiphany (January 6th).
Frau Perchta- The Female Krampus?
Frau Perchta is NOT the feminine version of Krampus. She is her own terrifying legend in and of itself. There are numerous stories, legends, and myths to exactly who Perchta is though. In some places, she goes by Berchta, or Bertha, and in others is simply known as “Spinnstubenfrau” (Spinning Room Lady).
But who is Frau Perctha? Is she a Goddess? A “Christmas Witch?” A murderous old hag?
No matter who she is, one thing is very, very clear. She must be German through and through? How do I know this? Because if there is one thing she hates, it is a messy house!! (Yup- Like I said….she MUST be German!) So, if she arrives at your home before the Epiphany (January 6) and your home is not tidied, then be prepared for her wrath, which could include anything from setting your “unwoven fibers” ablaze in your spinning room (because, you know…who doesn’t have a spinning room still- and no, I don’t mean a Pelaton!). But fires may be the least of your concerns if she finds you have an unorganized home. She may sneak into your room as you lie sleeping dreaming of all your Christmas goodies, gut your stomach out and replace it with none other than rocks!!!
Want to get on Perchta’s good side? Besides keeping that home nice and clean, just simply leave her a bowl of porridge!
A Percthen run is similar to a Krampus run and sometimes they are even combined.
There are many Perchtenlauf in Germany where Percthen (the “associates” of Frau Perchta) are not devils but rather lost souls. They are not there to so much scare little children into being nice, but instead, their job is to chase away evil winter spirits. Therefore, these masked individuals look a bit less “Devil” like and more “Monsterous” In fact, they are often believed to bring good luck!
While you may see Perctha at a Krampus Run, she actually often has her own designated Perchtenlauf, which is traditionally around the last three Thursdays before Christmas. In many places instead of Krampusnacht, these evenings are “Berchtlnacht”
What To Expect At a Krampus Festival
If you are not going to the smaller villages, but rather a bigger festival, such as a Krampus Run, then know that the true tradition of him side by side with St. Nick has been replaced with a mentality of “shock and awe” for spectators. The following statements are true for the big parades and festivals (not so much at the traditional, local events)
- This Is Not A Spectator’s Sport: If you are not going to the smaller villages, but rather a bigger festival, such as a Krampus Run, then know that the true tradition of Krampus and St. Nick, side by side has been replaced with a mentality of “shock and awe” for spectators. You very well may get chased and even “whipped” with a birch rod
- Crowds: Again, at the big events, you’ll want to show up at least an hour or so early, as crowds will form and if you are left in the back, you may not have good vantage points.
- Booze: In a traditional Pass, it’s said that some schnapps may help to appease the beasts. Unfortunately, this has kind of taken on its own issue in and of itself, as some Krampus have a bad reputation for maybe having a few too many schnapps after all.
- Cold: Sure, the booze and Gluhweins might help, but since it’s not like the markets where you are walking around, you may find yourself pretty cold just standing there waiting for the parade to start! Make sure you’ve read my Packing For December In Germany article so you know what clothes to wear to stay toasty!
Where to See Krampus in Germany
Germans have a lot of stereotypes. Just like how Oktoberfest is not synonymous with all of Germany (as neither is Lederhosen), Krampus is not celebrated everywhere in Deutschland. In fact, you’ll probably only find Krampus in Southern parts of Bavaria, particularly in the Alps. The furthest “North” I’ve seen him is in the Oberpfalz region.
Many locals who see Krampusnacht not as a tourist attraction, but as a long standing, deeply cultural event in their region are afraid that Krampus is becoming too commercialized. Therefore, it’s often difficult to get exact locations of where a Krampusnacht might be. Many smaller villages want to keep this a local tradition and are quite protective of the very special evening that they have grown up with.
At Christmas Markets throughout Germany, on the 5th of December, St. Nikolaus goes out to greet the children. But, in parts of Bavaria, St. Nicholas and Krampus come together.
Unfortunately, these aren’t always widely advertised since it is still a very local tradition and often it is just a local group that shows up, so it is hard to plan for tourists.
Krampus also often will show up at the markets on December 6th as well.
Note: If you are traveling in Germany with kids, be careful. Granted, they normally don’t come until dark, but in Germany in the Winter, that can be as early as 4:30. If you’ve got younger kiddos, as much fun as Krampusnacht is for adults, I highly recommend heading in early on those nights if you don’t want your kids to be scarred for life. Or….do as the Germans do, I suppose! After all, I guess that IS the whole point of Krampus in Germany!!!
Something that is becoming popular, especially in parts of Austria, where they are trying to monetize the ever growing popularity of Krampus is to have a designated Krampus Parade (Krampuslauf literally means “Krampus Run”)
These Krampus festivals are intense and one of a kind! Some of the most popular are the Munich Krampus Run and the Krampus Salzburg Krampuslauf. Huge groups of Kramperl terrorize the streets. They run after spectators, grab people to take them to their lair, and even whip people on the legs with their birch sticks.
No. I’m not joking. This. Is. Real!
Of course, it’s all done in “good fun” but ask anyone who has gotten the birch rod on their calf and they may tell a different tale of “fun”!
It’s also said that Krampus may behave a little more if you offer plenty of schnapps to him (it doesn’t hurt to have some yourself).
In some places, people like to take the association of the Devil to the after-party. And what better heathen music than Black Metal!
Krampuslaufs and Krampus Festivals in Germany
Berchtesgaden (town) is probably the most traditional place for a Germany Krampus Night. The Bass (group) often start high above the valley, so that the sinister sounds of the bells drawing nearer and nearer builds the anticipation.
Sometimes in town, the Bass may be “released” from a cave (or sometimes a barn, depending on where in town you are) and then the Kramperl with giant bells on their backs begin to parade down the main street. Bunttlmandl will accompany them as well.
As noted above, the Bass go from home to home visiting families and children, often in the afternoon and early evenings, leaving plenty of time for another good romp in the streets after dark.
Dates: Every year on December 5th and 6th, in the Berchtesgaden valley basin and main streets of town
Munich Krampus Run
The “Krampuslauf über den Münchner Christkindlmarkt” might just be the most popular of all the Krampus festivals in Germany. Every year, over 400 Kampus and Perchten alike run through the streets of the Munich Christmas Markets creating quite a scene!
Due to its accessibility and popularity, it’s no surprise that this Krampus Parade can get packed and crowded. If you want a front row seat to see the Krampus, be sure to arrive at the streets at least an hour before the event starts.
There are often two main dates for the run. One around St. Nicholas day and the other a few days before Christmas.
Dates: They have not yet announced 2022 dates but in the past, it actually has not been on Krampusnacht.
(check back regularly as I will update when it is announced)
While not as touristy and popular as the Munich Krampus Run or the traditional Bercthesgaden night, Obberarmergau usually has its own little Krampus parade where St. Nick can be watched heading down the main street in a horse drawn carriage, led by no other than his Kramperl.
Dates: Every year on December 5th
The Oberpfalz region of Bavaria is a small section just East of Nuremberg and stretches to the Czech Border. Regensburg and Neumarkt are two towns that fall within this area, but there are plenty of small towns and villages as well.
There is a very special group called the Oberpfälzer Schlossteufeln that go around to local towns for Krampus Parades and festivals and to the local Christmas Markets.
I particularly like these events because they are:
- Often at smaller Christmas Markets (this is actually one of my favorite Tips For Visiting Christmas Markets because the smaller markets often are more local, authentic feeling and typically have more hand made items than the huge markets)
- This Group is Great With Kids. When I have seen this group at the smaller markets (I particularly saw them in the small village of Parsberg) instead of chasing kids, they are more playful with them- handing out high fives, tossing hair, even giving hugs! But that doesn’t mean they won’t give the teens and adults a good jolt!
Dates: Will Vary. Check the links for all locations and dates
Pullman City (Theme Park) is actually pretty well known for its Christmas Market. So, with so many tourists, it’s no surprise that they have their own Berchta Bass as well.
Date: 2022 Not Annoucned Yet
Perchtenlaufs in Germany
Since Percthen are more associated with the Rauchtnacht, which is the period between Christmas and the Epiphany, the Perchtenlaufs don’t always happen on December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas Day) but instead are often anytime during advent.
While many Perchten and Krampuslaufs coincide now, this traditional Percthenlauf is more about banishing the demons of the winter. The Percthen light fires, dance, and go door to door (often making quite the ruckus) making sure that only happiness and fertility remain in the land.
Address: Fritz-Litzlfelder-Str. 14, 85614 Kirchseeon
While it’s called the “Romantic” Bad Tölz Christmas Market, I’d say there is quite a different ambiance than “Romantic” when the Percthen arrive! You can expect over 60 “wildlings” at this event.
Krampus and Percthen Local Groups
There are also tons of local groups that go to nearby towns and villages. In fact, they are almost countless and near impossible to all list here. However, if you can find a local chapter of a group then you are bound to find their schedule of events.
Burghausen: Wöhrsee Teufel
Where to See Krampus in Austria
While most people automatically think of the German Krampus, Austria actually has FAR more events, parades, and runs! In fact, while Krampus is only known in just the small corner of Bavaria, you are sure to find Krampus in all nooks and crannies of Austria! Here are just a few of the more famous ones (closest to Germany)
There are tons of Krampus Festivals and Percthen events in the Salzburgerland region of Austria which is just over the border of the German Bavarian border.
Krampus Salzburg Run
The Salzburger Krampuslauf is one of the most popular in the area, with supposedly upwards of 1000 Percthen and Krampus free to roam! In the town’s Christmas Market, around 6:30pm, the streets become chaos and wild with Krampus after Krampus, many chasing spectators around….all in good fun, of course!
But one of the reasons why this is so popular is because the Krampus don’t JUST come to the Christmas market, they can be found all over town.
There are runs all throughout December, so be sure you get to one to have quite the experience!
Dates: 2021 Salzburger Krampuslauf dates have not yet been announced (check back here frequently as I will update as soon as there are dates)
Johann im Pongau
This is another fantastic Krampusrun, again, with over 1000 Krampus. Set in the mountains, Johann im Pongau is a beautiful place to be any time of year, but it’s especially great during Krampusnacht, with one of the most famous ones in Austria.
The Krampus parade takes yearly on December 6th in the upper part of the village.
Date: December 6th at 7:30pm (the main street will be closed starting at 4:30pm)
There is also a Kids Krampus run at 7pm
Another fantastic event to take note of is the Bad Goisern Krampus Parade! Even though this one is very large, they still try to keep the tradition that Krampus is the counter-part to St. Nicholas. Therefore, the whole festive experience starts around 5pm when St. Nick shows up with all sorts of little goodie bags for little kids, especially children who can recite a prayer or poem for him. The Krampus parade continues, with each “Pass” being announced.
Date: December 7th 2021 (2022 Yet to Be Announced)
Marktplatz, 4822 Bad Goisern
Kids Krampus Run
In the town of Thumersbach, near Zell am See, there is a special kind of Krampus Run….a Kinder Krampus Parade! Little kids, instead of adults, don the masks and outfits and march down the street themselves!
Date: Annually on December 3rd at 6.00 p.m
5700 Thumersbach, Dorfplatz
Toblach in Alta Pusteria
While this one is a bit further from Germany, actually much closer to Italy, it is said that the Toblach Krampus Südtirol event is the oldest in the Südtirol region.
Do you have any Krampus festivals you’d like me to add to the list? Let me know in our Travel in Bavaria Facebook Group or shoot me an email!