Meet the Beasts of Christmas: Come Face-to-Teeth with Krampus in South Tyrol

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Kate + Vin

St. Nicholas Meeting with Krampus
krampus icon

Ever encountered a Krampus in the dark of night? Pray you don’t. Discover what it’s like to meet the wild beasts of Christmas lore in South Tyrol, Italy.

In the Alps, the holiday season isn’t all pretty bows and ribbons. As we found out, it’s also fangs, horns, fire and fur. Lots and lots of fur. Krampus is a Christmas tradition that confronts you — a menacing reminder that not all holiday spirits come bearing gifts.

Here, the Christmas season is a dance between light and darkness, a celebration that forces you to embrace the whole range of human experience — even the parts that go “bump” in the Alpine night. Welcome to Christmas with teeth.

Beware of the Din in the Dark

Whether they heard, saw, or sensed them first, we could not tell. But the children knew. They knew what darkness summons in December. When night falls fast and the cold cleaves to the very marrow of your bones. When winds born of the devil plummet from icy peaks casting a spell of dread unto the land.

Indeed, the children knew well before the rest of us: something wicked this way surely comes.

Krampus children
A child hears the bells echoing across the icy shores of Lago di Carezza.

A clatter of cowbells stirred somewhere in the distance. Three kids next to us gasped, scattering to a wooden fence lining the snow-stomped path. They scuttled onto the bottom rail straining to peer into towering shrouds of timber.

The clamor of bells grew louder. More gasps spread through the little ones. A tangle of fear and excitement tightened around us. And then we spotted them.

First, as long shadows twisting and contorting in the flickering lantern lights. Then as silhouettes with devilish horns that could only have been forged in the fires of hell.

Krampus marching into a Christmas market
Krampus on the march in the Dolomites.

Remaining in the path of this looming evil was not wise. We dashed to the fence. No way were we going to be caught in the chaos of Krampus in South Tyrol.

But it did not matter. Soon they were upon us.

We shrank as wolf fangs and serpent tongues flashed out under lantern glow. Switches made of sticks lashed against our legs as they rushed by.

Each blow sent a stinging reminder to remain on the favorable side of St. Nicholas during the Christmas season. The message was duly noted.

Scary Krampus

The parade of Krampus poured into the night until no child was left unscared. We were blown away. Our first Krampus experience at the Christmas Market of Lake Carezza was everything we hoped it would be. At once a terrifying and oddly thrilling spectacle. Afterward, we calmed our pounding hearts with ample cups of Glühwein.

But our time with the beasts of ancient lore was not over. You see, once you’ve survived the Krampus, the thrill of meeting more only grows. So a few nights later we went to Margreid, an ancient wine village in South Tyrol’s Unterland, for the second oldest Krampus celebration in South Tyrol.

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Wherever the Krampus May Roam

Krampus run in Margreid
Ominous? You better believe it. The Krampus Run in Margreid is the 2nd oldest in South Tyrol.

We snaked our way into a group of revelers gathering in the village square. The medieval facades surrounding us seemed to close in as we studied the darkness yawning from a damp cobblestone street. There was to be no escape. Like before, the children stared wide-eyed ahead. But the black of the night only stared back. Then it began.

Fire belched into the sky and lights red as blood painted a billowing mist moving toward us. A tribal beat thundered in the air. The crowd began to run. We stood frozen.

Scary Krampus
The scariest Krampus we ever met? Most definitely.

Materializing before us in the gloom was a Krampus the Devil surely spawned himself. Four immense horns rose like a crown from a hulking figure covered in gnarls of fur not even a grizzly bear would dare groom.

We were not about to stick around to see its tortured face. Besides, falling victim to a switch from a Krampus this size was not on either one of our holiday wish lists. We scattered to the side of the street, but like before, it was no use. Another hoard of Krampus found us.

Stings shot up our legs again as a blizzard of switches tore through the street. Clearly, behaving like a saint since our last Krampus encounter was not enough for jolly ole St. Nick.

But we were the lucky ones. A Krampus hunted down a young man nearby. Its switch swatted the lad into an awful dance as he tried to avoid the blows. We didn’t know his offense, but he must have spent the better part of the last year up to no good. Next to him, another Krampus lurched at a little girl who instantly burst into tears — guaranteeing she would never sneak another treat from the cookie jar again.

About an hour after the Krampus began their maniacal march, the roars of fire, jarring cowbells and spellbinding whirls of gothic lighting came to an end. Whatever naughtiness was left in the crowd was to be dealt with another night.

But instead of lurking back to their caverns in the mountains, which is without a doubt somewhere amid the demonic-looking peaks of Cadini di Misurina, the Krampus kindly posed for pictures. The chance to win over a Christmas Devil with a smile was not something we were about to miss.

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Keeping Up with the Krampus in South Tyrol

South Tyrol hosts several Krampus Runs or “Krampuslauf” each holiday season. From towns in the Dolomites like Ortisei and Castelrotto to cities such as Merano and Bolzano, you can likely find a Krampus event while visiting the region.

The largest Krampus Run in South Tyrol takes place in the village of Toblach (Dobbaccio in Italian) in the heart of Val Pusteria not from from Lago di Dobbiaco. Nearly 600 beasts including those from Austria, Germany and Switzerland invade the town square for a night filled with ancestral terror. The choir of cowbells heard here may only be rivaled by a South Tyrolean cattle drive.

Krampus Night or “Krampusnacht” traditionally occurs on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. However, Krampus events in South Tyrol run from late November through early December. The dates of Krampus Runs can vary from year to year so be sure to confirm the event before arriving.

If you go, do not wear light-colored clothing. The characters behind the costumes often use black makeup that can rub off on you when tussling with the beasts.

Whether you’re a fan of all things scary or not, participating in a night of Krampus debauchery is a must when visiting South Tyrol during the merriest time of year. The charm of its famous Christmas markets would not be the same without them.

A Brief History of Krampus

A vintage print of Krampus stealing naughty children.
A vintage Krampus print from the 1900s.

The gnarled roots of Krampus can be traced back to pre-Christian pagan traditions in Europe, particularly Alpine regions such as Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Ancient cultures in the Alps celebrated winter solstice festivals where they believed evil spirits roamed freely. To ward off these malevolent entities, villagers would create terrifying masks and costumes resembling horned creatures.

As Christianity weaved its way across medieval Europe, many pagan rituals were incorporated into Christian holidays by the Catholic Church to facilitate their acceptance by local populations. As a result, elements from winter solstice festivals merged with Christmas celebrations over time.

Eventually, the Krampus legend evolved into a tale to encourage children to behave. According to Christian folklore, they are demonic creatures, half-man, half-animal. Conquered by St. Nicholas, he demanded their obedience making them part of his legion.

On the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, good children receive gifts from St. Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus). The naughty children? They receive a visit from the Christmas Devil (a.k.a. Krampus). The beast either doles out swift retribution with a smack of a switch or, in a macabre twist, whisks the children away in a basket for a fate involving limbs torn asunder or even the chilling act of consumption.

Krampus book cover

If you want to dive deep into Krampus folklore, we recommend reading The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil by Al Ridenour. The book explores the captivating history of Krampus, unearthing the origins and evolution. It traces the tradition from its ancient pagan roots to its modern-day resurgence, dissecting the tradition’s cultural, social, and psychological significance in the process. We were surprised to discover how widespread the custom is in parts of Europe. For example, “Knecht Ruprecht” in Germany is another similar folkloric legend.

The Old Magic of Christmas book cover

Another fascinating book we came across while researching the tradition is The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year by Linda Raedisch. This one is perfect for reading by the fireplace on a cold winter night. The author unwraps the mystical history of many Christmas customs. She explores deep-rooted connections to nature, folklore, and the supernatural. From centuries-old rituals to forgotten recipes and crafts, the book is a treasure-trove of bewitching practices once common throughout Europe.

How Authentic Krampus Masks Are Made

Krampus Masks
Authentic Krampus masks are hand-crafted works of art.

Deep within these snow-laden valleys of Austria and South Tyrol, artisans bring to life the Krampus mask. An authentic mask, in tune with tradition, is a wood-carved masterpiece chiseled to chilling perfection.

Once you encounter a Krampus up close, you realize the masks themselves are true works of art. The mask makers’ expert attention to detail creates realistic expressions that could frighten the Devil himself. Crafted from stone pine wood, the process is an intricate dance between custom and precision. With rough cuts and deft carving knives, the woodblock begins its transformation. Slowly, a visage of Krampus emerges, complete with the sinister snarl that sends chills down spines.

Woodcarved Krampus Mask

As the carving takes shape, it’s meticulously refined. Every curve, every furrow, needs the right touch of menace. However, mask-making isn’t all about aesthetics; it’s also about balance. A mask too heavy loses its nimbleness, too thin, and the essence is lost. The carver must achieve a harmonious meeting of wood and spirit.

In the final touches, demonic glass eyes and horns are added to the mask. The horns are often the real deal. Coming from goats in the region. Ultimately, the mask is primed and painted with oil and acrylic strokes, transforming the wood into a living, breathing beast. A soft inner padding is then often added providing a layer of comfort for the would-be mask wearer.

Such striking woodcarvings are to be displayed year-round not just donned during the Christmas season. We recommend hanging them in a man cave…not above a little one’s crib!

With a little searching, you can find an authentic Krampus mask on sites such as Etsy that specialize in handmade and unique products hard to find elsewhere. Etsy also offers a number of other masks made from latex that are really well done and much more affordable than a wood-carved mask.

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Krampus Decorations & Gift Ideas

Krampus Coffee Table Book: If a mask is not your cup of tea, but you still want to add a little harmless mischief into your home during the holidays, consider picking up Krampus: The Devil of Christmas. This beautifully illustrated book by award-winning artist, Monte Beauchamp, is filled with vintage imagery inspired by German postcards from the 1890s

Krampus Holiday Greeting Cards: You can also purchase vintage Krampus greeting cards that will be sure to stand out from all the other holiday cards crowding the fridges of your family and friends. Nothing brightens spirits like “Gruss vom Krampus” (Greetings from Krampus).

Vintage Krampus Images
As far back as the 1890s, Germans, Austrians, and Tyroleans have sent Krampus greeting cards during the Christmas season.

Krampus Christmas Sweater: Is there anything uglier than a Christmas sweater? Yes, one with a Christmas Devil on it. Such foul holiday attire is an unholy union where the season’s cheer goes to die. Perfect for your next holiday work party. Check out Krampus sweaters here.

Krampus yard decoration

Krampus Yard Decor: Don’t let your neighbor hog the holiday spotlight with his oversized, inflatable Rudolph that screams “Clark Griswold was here.” Reclaim your Yuletide throne by setting up a spine-chilling Krampus silhouette in your front yard. It won’t just be a head-turner; it’ll also be a conversation starter, maybe even the stuff of whispered lore among the local youngsters.

*The St. Nicholas and Krampus photo is courtesy of Manrico Finotto.

Krampus and Santa Claus Meet
Krampus during Christmas season
Krampus Night Parade

22 thoughts on “Meet the Beasts of Christmas: Come Face-to-Teeth with Krampus in South Tyrol”

  1. I first heard about Krampus during a Europe Christmas market visit but wasn’t there on the right day and I’ve been curious ever since. I don’t like the whole scaring the crap of children on purpose part, but, still, I want to have both of your experiences! The woods and city square both sounded incredible. Great tip about the dark clothes

  2. Omg now this would be one unique experience!!!! Love the detail of the Krampus masks. Very well done and definitely scary!

  3. Oh my gosh – this looks so scary! We love watching Krampus, but not sure how I would feel about seeing it in real life. Ha ha!

  4. Wow this is such an interesting take on Christmas. I don’t think I’d be going to visit Krampus during this jolly season,

  5. Oh my goodness this is way too scary for me (but I am definitely not the toughest person around haha). Easy to see how this would be so fun if you love the horror genre 🙂

  6. as much as Americans love the horror genre, I don’t know why we aren’t celebrating krampus more. it’s so fun!

  7. Wow! I have never heard or seen anything like this, so I really enjoyed reading about it. Great photos, too!

  8. OMG!! This looks seriously scary and I would be so so scared if I was there but it looks like it was such a fun thing to go to if you are into all things Krampus

  9. You sure know how to use your words well to make a great story. I was pulled in and felt like I was right there with you. Too funny. I really love this.

  10. Good Lord, I’m terrified by this post! We spend many winters in the Dolomiti in northern Italy, but have yet to see Krampus! I think this post is enough lol!

    • Ha! Well we hope you do not run into any then on your next visit to the Dolomites. Thanks for the comment Lisa!

    • Ha! No doubt! Krampus is a tradition that should be celebrated all over. Just imagine how much better behaved kids would be today!

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