The other night Himself and I stood with a small crowd that began to gather at 5 pm at the top of Linzergaße. Having strolled up the gently rising street, past its shops glittering with clothing and shoes, past the small markets with trays of candied fruit coloured like shining marbles, past its small cafes and Konditoreis with their pastries and gühlwein, we shivered in the cold and waited anxiously. From a tiny courtyard at the end of a narrow alley near where we stood we heard the occasional deep knell of several iron bells, about the timber of a large cow bell.
‘Der Krampus kommt.’
The sound of the bells grew more frequent and more insistent; the excitement of the crowd swelled as more people crowded in; my tension rose. I had heard the Krampus is truly frightening.
‘I don’t see why people take their children,’ someone had said. ‘It’s too terrifying.’
She was right, of course. Which is precisely the point, at least traditionally. The Krampus is St Nikolaus’ counterpart, a threat, the awful consequence of what may happen if child or adult is not good. In this part of the world the passive threat – a lump of coal, the absence of gifts, the punishment of void – does not suffice. The Krampus is an active presence, come to scourge with chains and punish with birch rods.
The clamour from the bells suddenly increased over a tumult of voices as a red figure appeared in the entrance of the alley. It was St Nikolaus dressed – appropriately enough for a saint – in a red cassock with a bishop’s mitre. In Austria, St Nikolaus is still a church man.
On either side of the saint were two ghouls covered in pale-grey fur. Small in stature, they didn’t grab my attention because I was riveted by the other figures rushing out of the narrow gap. Tall – no giant – figures covered in shaggy dark fur like Chewbacca, they had his slump-shouldered massiveness. But these were monsters with enormous heads over which rose horns in high, wide arcs, thick and spear-like. From the shadows they poured into the street, the clanging of their iron bells raucous and insistent. They rushed toward those of us watching, brandishing thick switches, pushing their way into the crowd. One of them came straight at me, extended a claw at me, grabbed my head, then forced my face into his hairy chest. My hat askew, my glasses shoved into my face, I shrieked with genuine alarm. Others of the creatures loomed, arms thrust forward, threatening, as they stormed the waiting crowd.
One of their troop, however, taller and even more fierce, emerged from the shadows riding a wickerwork chariot pulled by two smaller beasts. Its face was illuminated by an open fire burning in a bucket suspended from the curved rim of the chariot, a horned skull hung from the front. The other ten or fifteen Krampuses weaved and bobbed around the chariot, darting into the crowd then back again, bells jarring, stamping their feet, jumping and lunging at those of us watching. Hurling themselves at the crowd, occasionally one would skid in the icy slush-covered pavement and, almost gracefully, on huge feet, ski along the street for a metre or so. But always they kept moving, jostling and shoving, their rictus-like faces glaring like the demons of nightmares.
St Nikolaus and his escorts had moved away down the street and the band of Krampuses surrounding the chariot-mounted leader followed in rag-tag fashion. Behind them, another escort of red-jacketed security volunteers and uniformed Polizei formed a line, the security volunteers linking hands to form a cordon to keep the watchers from engulfing the Krampus troop. Slowly we all moved down the narrow street, lit by dangling Christmas lights. The baroque steeple of St Sebastian’s church gleamed serenely against the black sky; below, accompanied by their strident bells, the fiend-like creatures circled the chariot in a frenzy, faces in fixed grimaces, claws pointed into the crowd. The crowd, held back by the security patrol, gathered and heaved behind them.
Despite the press at my back, despite my alarm at both the creatures and the crowd, I was fascinated, drawn forward. Linking hands, Himself and I shouldered our way forward, not wanting to lose sight of the spectacle. I stared at the intricate masks, each one distinctive in its artfulness. Open mouths with permanent leers revealed fangs. Snout-like noses were squashed with gaping nostrils. Ears were pointed or wing like or torn and shredded. A tongue protruded from a lurid grin; bulging obscenely, it skewed sideways. Some masks were dark or dun; others had complexions of lurid colours – red, green, yellow and orange. The large, globe-like bells, strapped so they hung on the creatures’ backs just above the buttocks, appeared obscene at times, like protruding bulbous baboon bottoms.
On we pushed, the tribe of Krampuses keeping a frenetic beat, the clamour of the bells and primordial dance, round and round. Every few paces the vortex of swirling bodies, bells, chariot and fire stopped while the monsters turned outward to the watching crowd. We filled the narrow way, surging and swelling as we went. On either side of the street rose five-story and six-story faded pastel buildings from the 18th century. From upper stories, windows opened out as people leaned out into the chill, watching. We inched along, moving about 500 metres over a half hour, the press of the crowd becoming stronger. Himself and I had managed to keep, for the most part, immediately behind the security cordon; behind us, a handful of young men in their late teens shouted and pushed. I stiffened my body and locked my knees to avoid being shoved into the back of one of the police.
At last we came to a curve in the street. The Krampus troop bore to the right down an darker street; Himself and I went left where the street opened onto a platz by the river. My feet by this time were numb; I tried stomping them to get the blood flowing. We joined another crowd, much smaller, gathered around a stall selling gühlwein, the spiced hot wine ubiquitous in the Christmas markets.
Back home, safe and warm again, we considered the seething crowd and flailing, bobbing monsters in the eerie, sulphurous half light of the narrow street. It was genuinely alarming. From a child’s perspective, it must be terrifying. But the procession was led not just by the chariot-mounted Krampus but also by the gentle and benign St Nikolaus as well. Maybe, Himself observed, there’s something in facing out your demons – as in writing, for instance – and then coming home to a warm, well-lighted room, that makes some things come out okay.