Events

Krampus Is a Big Deal in LA -- Here's Why, and Where to Celebrate Him

Published On 11/29/2016 Published On 11/29/2016
krampus
Traditional Krampus masks | Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock

Krampuses are horned and hairy beasts in Alpine folklore who work as agents of St. Nicholas, prowling the countryside with him on Krampusnacht, which is every December 5th -- and if you think you know Krampuses (Krampi??) because you watched the movie with Adam Scott, then you're wrong. You can sort of think of them as much-scarier-looking-Santas: creatures who signal their approach by the jangle of their bells, and though they may be fearsome, those who have been good will find them merciful. But if you've been bad, a Krampus may swat you with a switch. And if you've been very bad, he may shove you in his basket and drag you to hell or throw you in a frozen lake. So be good, for goodness' sake.

Though the Krampus is a central figure in Austrian and Bavarian tradition, he's seen a newfound popularity among Americans, and especially among Angelenos, thanks to horror flicks and local events. Al Ridenour, author of The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil (2016), resides in Pasadena and each year produces a host of seasonal local Krampus fêtes, including balls, a parade, and a night of Krampus-themed cover bands, such as Krammpstein and Marilyn Krampson.

Los Angeles' events in particular strongly convey the true origins of the Krampus, not just the schlocky horror side, and maintain connections with authentic Austrian groups. To explain Los Angeles’ inclination to warmly embrace the toothy beast, Ridenour said it’s just in our nature to love all things weird.

"We don't have much of an indigenous tradition for Christmas or anything that goes back very far, and I think the West Coast has always attracted people who want to live a little differently or who are eccentric,” he said. “There's also the film industry and the idea that L.A. was built as this sort of a Lotusland for people who like to explore fantasy.”

Ridenour first became aware of the Krampus while studying German literature -- in Germany, the Krampus’ counterpart is known as the Knecht Ruprecht. Ridenour would later become enchanted by lithographs of the devilish figure while living in Berlin, and in the early 2000s, he would encounter the Krampus again, this time via images being circulated on the Internet. When he learned that many towns still held the Krampuslauf (or, Krampus Run), he decided he wanted to go to Austria and experience the festivities for himself. So in 2012, he visited the Austrian town of Bad Gastein, which he chose because he'd heard their Krampus Run, unlike those in other towns, was the most "unruly.”

"It's been civilized a bit over the years, but in that town, the Krampus Run doesn't take the form of a parade going down a linear route,” he said. “You never know where you're going to see them. You hear the bells and they show up."

These Krampuses, typically young men in frightful costumes, burst into bars and restaurants, snatch passersby's hats clean off their heads, and they even do home visits -- an old tradition, wherein St. Nicholas and his terrifying minions will show up at residences to appraise those inside. Traditionally, during judgement, St. Nicholas would ask everyone if they'd been good, and would test them, perhaps by quizzing them on Catechism or other holy studies. Though not mentioned in the Bible, Ridenour describes the Krampus as a kind of “folk-Catholicism,” a cautionary tale to encourage piety among the youth.

A typical grouping for a home visit is one St. Nicholas, two angels, six Krampuses and an additional party who carries a basket containing treats for those deemed to have been good. The addition of St. Nicholas provides not only a chaperone, but "a moral purpose," Ridenour said, offering the townspeople a chance to prove their sanctity and be rewarded for it, rather than just forcing them to deal with the rampaging Krampuses. Despite their horrifying appearances, the Krampuses, at their worst, could be described as disruptive, offering a playful swat or, perhaps, attempting to wrestle a piece of the family’s furniture out into the snow. They bear a strong similarity to trick-or-treaters, as a resident can beguile them into quieting down by offering them a treat, be it a snack, alcohol, or some coins.

These home visits are vestiges, Ridenour said, of the Nicholas Plays, which contained various scenes involving the pious St. Nicholas and his brutish devils. These contain some of the earliest references to the Krampus and if you're very curious about them, there is one happening next month featuring select scenes from an 18th-century work that has been translated into English for the occasion.

When Ridenour returned home from Austria, he found he had a message from an old friend, Al Guerrero, suggesting they form a Krampus group in Los Angeles. The pair had both previously been involved with LA's Cacophony Society, which Ridenour had run in the '90s. As such, they'd participated in early SantaCon events before they deteriorated into the drunken free-for-all they are today. Ridenour had also worked with a morbid arts group known as The Art of Bleeding, a performance troupe that poked fun at mid-century health and wellness literature. The Krampus thing just feels like a natural extension of Ridenour's Yuletide and macabre interests. In 2013, the pair produced the first Krampus LA event, and it's been going strong each year since, with many going all out on original costumes.

So, if you want to get out your horns and get into the Krampus spirit, here's how:

December
krammpstein
Krammpstein | Phil Glau

December

Friday
Dec 2
Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Ave 57, Highland Park.
The annual highlight of Krampus season is always both charming and creepy, beginning with some good old-fashioned Austrian traditions, then descending into chaos as judgement approaches. This year, there will be traditional Austrian music and dance, puppetry, bands, cookies, Stiegl beer, vendors, and, of course, the arrival of two dozen devils to cast judgement on each and every gathered reveler. This event is 21+, and tickets are $25 in advance, $35 at the door.
Thursday
Dec 8
Winston St between Main and Los Angeles in DTLA, afterparty at The Regent, 448 S. Main.
See a parade of decked out devils, including a steam car that ferries St. Nicholas down the streets. Those among you with your own Krampus costumes are invited to participate, while mere mortals will have to settle for spectating. (Runners must send in a photo of their costume by December 7th.) Afterwards, head on over to The Regent for tunes from Rosemary's Billygoat, who Ridenour described as a "faux-Satanic costumed rock spectacle," and Sapphic Musk, who are described as a "Nordic lesbian Viking metal" band. The parade is free and family-friendly, the afterparty is free with RSVP or $10 without.
Saturday
Dec 10
The Alpine Village, 833 W. Torrance Blvd, Torrance, 8pm
A bizarre yet enchanting mash-up will occur when Krammpstein, a Krampus-themed Rammstein cover band fronted by Green Jelly's Greg Reynard, joins forces with Marilyn Krampson. (Uh, yes, same deal, but with Marilyn Manson tunes.) Take it from us, these bands are just as weird and incredible as they sound, and Krammpstein also gives out Christmas cookies while they play. Also performing is Talea, “a unique mix of ambient/electronic soundscapes, tribal percussion [and] ambient and abrasive guitar,” and We Beastie, a Bay Area group who will don Krampus outfits and lead carols. Krampus LA members will be present to deliver switchings to the naughty, and of course, German food and drink will be available from Alpine Steinhaus. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Sunday
Dec 11
Church of the Angels, 1100 Ave 65, Pasadena
Enter the beautiful Gothic Revival Church of the Angels for a presentation an authentic Nikolausspiel, or, Nicholas Play, an 18th-century tale that is believed to be one of the earliest accounts of the Krampus' origin. They've translated and selected only the most stirring scenes, which include "the Krampus, Lucifer, butchered children, and the inexorable power of Death, all represented in bouncy rhyme." There will also be traditional tales and songs from Austrian siblings Michael and Monika Kaufmann, an appearance by that aforementioned steam car, and a 25-minute screening of the the Krampus documentary Tuifl with filmmaker Hannah Jakubowska.

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Juliet is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA, and she's certain the Krampus will be merciful this year. She loves Halloween, cats, immersive theater, escape rooms and roadside motels. She's at @jbrylah (for both Twitter and Insta)

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