My first encounter with Krampus — St Nicholas’s demon slave who punishes the naughty children who say their prayers, while St Nicholas rewards the good children — was also my most memorable encounter with that spirit. I was twelve years old, and we had moved a few months before to the remote town of Gaming in the limestone alps of Lower Austria (before then we had been living in the scarcely less remote (though considerably larger) town of South Bend, Indiana).
On the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas as it got dark I went out to be chased by Krampus. I had heard a good deal about him in the preceding days, and could scarcely believe what I had heard. Last year, said one of my informants, Krampus had chased the daughter of the Fiat dealer in town into her house, and up into her bedroom, and then dragged her out from under her bed and whipped her. This seemed scarcely credible to me.
In any case, I went out. My companions were an American boy named Tommy, a Croatian boy named Josip, and two Austrian boys named (if I recall aright) Thomas and Matthias. At first we went to the Town Hall, were St Nicholas was passing out peanuts and tangerines. Then a police-man gave a speech through a megaphone saying that the Krampuslauf was to begin and requesting that people take care that things not get out of hand, and that no-one be hurt too bad. We walked warily off down the side walk. After a few blocks we suddenly heard the sound of bells behind us. We turned and looked back, and saw a whole of pack of Krampusse pursuing us at a great pace. They were terrible to see. Dressed (as in the picture above) in white sheep skins that gleamed in the ghastly light of the street lamps, with great bunches of cow bells chained to their backs, their faces covered in horrible plastic masks, and in their hands bundles of long switches tied together with electricians tape. We, however, did not stick around to watch, we ran for all we were worth, and managed to get away from that first pack.
But just as we stood panting in the door of the bank regaining our breath, another pack emerged from across the street and cornered us in before we could get away. The Krampusse immediately began to strike us on the legs with all their switch-bundles— a stinging pain at each hit. And then they began to shout at us “Beten! Beten!” [Pray! Pray!]. After some hesitation I knelt down and began to falter through the Our Father in German. I forgot the words half way through, but skipped on to the end, and they were satisfied and moved off.
We were chased a few more times that night, but were not caught again. On one occasion we fled into someone’s house to hide from a pack. The Krampusse came to the door, and the grown-ups invited them in and gave them beer— we peering down at them from the landing of the stairs. When I got home that night I had red welts on my legs, of which I was inordinately proud.
I was just the right age for enjoying in Krampus then. In subsequent years I was a bit too old, but I shall never forget that first Krampusnacht. The custom is much ridiculed, but I found no harm in it.