SHAERDING, Austria -- Residents in many Alpine villages in Europe take Ol' Saint Nick's warning about being "naughty or nice" to a whole different level. Rather than a mere lump of coal, naughty children in the Alps may get a visit from a chain-rattling, club-carrying, horned monster!
In Bavaria, St. Nicholas may be accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, a similar-looking fellow with a long beard and a staff, though clad in a dirty brown shirt and often covered in coal dust. But, whereas St. Nick will hand out candies and goodies to well-behaved children, Ruprecht doles out coal and stones or maybe even a switch to naughty children.
In the Alps, though, things take a darker turn, with St. Nicholas being joined by horned creatures known as "Krampus," the ancient German word for claw, who may whip troublesome tykes with birch branches or cart them off in a sack.
The tradition dates back to pagan times, and may originally reference the ancient goddess, Frau Perchta. Frau Perchta would hike through the dark, desolate days of winter with her army of demons, protecting the good people and punishing the wicked. Some believe the tradition of young men dressing up like monsters began in an effort to frighten off the followers of Perchta, while others hold that the demons symbolize the driving out of winter.
By the 16th century, these costumed characters were known as Perchten, and as time and traditions have marched on, it's hard today to tell the difference between Perchten and Krampus. While Perchten are often associated with the winter solstice and Krampus with St. Nicholas, the two have merged today to be virtually indistinguishable to most. No matter what they're called, though, they make for an impressive parade.
Many villages celebrate a "Perchtenlauf" on or around Dec. 6, the eve of St. Nicholas. During a fiery parade filled with smoke, fireworks and massive clanging bells, hordes of men in hideous masks and furry costumes shamble through the streets, frightening children and threatening folk with bundles of switches or whips made of cow tails.
The masks are homemade works of art, crafted of wood and sporting a wide variety of horns and glistening fangs. Each one is unique and the style often varies by region. Many of the participants wear large bells about their hips and clang and rattle as they walk. Some even light their horns on fire or fling smoke bombs into the crowd.
While often associated with St. Nicholas Day, Perchtenlauf's are held throughout the Advent season in the Alpine countries. Ski lodges and large towns take advantage of the tradition to draw tourists. These are often watered-down, more family friendly gatherings than the more traditional events in the smaller, more remote villages. Salzburg holds several throughout the season.
Visitors interested in experiencing a unique and ancient tradition, should venture into the Alps before the winter solstice to get a glimpse of the horned armies of Frau Perchta marching through the snowy streets.