Krampusumzug in Murau | © Steiermark Tourismus | ikarus.cc

Custom in winter

The multitude of customs in evidence at Christmas time ‒ particularly over the Advent season and on public holidays ‒ are held in very high esteem in the Murau-Kreischberg region in Styria. In this part of Austria, the darker months of the year have given rise to a couple of ghoulishly beautiful traditions to drive away darkness. Keeping custom alive and passing on traditions is no longer just a job for the older generation; more and more young people are getting involved in making sure that these customs do not fade away. This is abundantly clear especially at the Perchten festivals and Krampus & St. Nikolaus parades.


The fiendish figures of Styria

From November onward, the calendar begins to fill up with numerous traditional events in and around the Murau-Kreischberg region ‒ and beware, for you could easily get a fright! The devilish pagan figures with their macabre yet beautiful masks, often found in small or large groups, know just how to make you jump, and not just the kids! Shaggy coats, long horns, malevolent-looking masks, strident cow bells, ratting iron chains or thick switches – it all contributes to the spine-chilling appearance of the Perchten and Krampus figures. To alleviate the nerves of the many fascinated spectators, they are often accompanied by a figure of St. Nikolaus and spectators are kept separate from the wild antics of the procession.

 

Perchten

From November to January, the infamous Perchten parades take place in many areas in the region. Fiendishly beautiful Perchten attired in wooden masks, horns and animal pelts roam the streets, accompanied by other fearsome figures and creating a din. The Perchtl or Perchte is an ancient, mythical figure of pagan lore; in the old oral traditions, she is nearly always an old, witch-like woman. Legend has it that this wintry figure appears mainly on the twelve nights between 25 December and 6 January. The mythology surrounding the Perchte has endured strongly particularly in rural areas and among farming folk, and it is also from here that the Perchten derived their devilish look. Such Perchten parades are often accompanied by the original Perchten: hideous hags in tattered clothing, habitually with a basket strapped to their backs. In Murau, a big Perchten parade through the old town takes place every two years in early December, organised by the Murau Schlossbergteufel, and is joined by many Perchten groups from near and far.

 

Krampus and Nikolaus

In Alpine custom, Krampus is a sinister figure who appears at Advent, similar to the Perchten. A Krampus parade traditionally takes place on 5 December, known as Krampus' day, during which demons prowl the streets equipped with switches or chains, wearing baskets on their backs, to accompany St. Nikolaus on his rounds. St. Nicholas Day is observed on 6 December: on this day, he famously brings well-behaved children a present, while bad children are punished by Krampus. Krampus almost always has a basket strapped to his back, where it is said that he carries off naughty children. The difference between Krampus and the Perchten is usually to be found in the effort with which the costume is made or put together. Krampus figures are less elaborate and have simpler costumes, as they are out and about for longer. In many places, traditional "home visits" still take place. Parents can 'book' Krampus figures as well as St. Nikolaus to visit their house. Nikolaus goes from house to house; sometimes the Krampus figures are allowed in, sometimes not, depending on how good the children have been over the year. Nikolaus brings all children a present, usually nuts, mandarins or sweets. In Murau, these home visits and the Krampus parade are organised by Murau Aktiv society. In the surrounding towns, this custom is delivered by the local rural youth groups.

 

Good wishes for the new year

It isn't just terrifying figures that are abroad in winter in the Murau-Kreischberg region. When the year comes to an end, there are lots of traditions big and small for wishing people good luck for year ahead. While festive Christmas markets and glühwein stands, small craft exhibitions and sparkling Christmas concerts attempt to fill the gloomy December days with light and warmth, the days between public holidays observe old customs handed down throughout the generations to welcome and prepare for a new year.

 

A beating for well-wishing

 

"Frisch und G'sund beating" is an old custom still practised today in many a town and village on 28 December, Holy Innocents' Day. Children go from house to house equipped with switches, wishing inhabitants a happy and healthy new year, by "beating" the adults with the switch as they say a rhyme: "Frisch und G'sund, frisch und g'sund, nix klunzn und nix klogn bis i wieda kim schlogn..." This means something like: "May you remain in good health, and have nothing to bemoan, until I return." As the rhyme continues, the person is being tapped on the bottom with the switch. Suffice to say: this is not painful, unlike with Krampus!

 

The Star Singers

The tradition of 'star singing' (Epiphany singing) is well known, even outside Styria and Austria. The event is organised by the Catholic Church each year, and there is a collection of donations for a chosen charity project. The Sternsinger procession ‒ representing the Magi ‒ and the "Sternträger" (the person carrying the star of Bethlehem, who walks in front of the Magi), visit each house at the start of the year, between 2 and 6 January. They proclaim the happy news of Christ's birth in the form of poems and songs, ask God to bless the residents, and wish them a happy new year. Leaving behind the scent of frankincense and myrrh in people's homes, they also leave a mark on the front door frame. Have you ever wondered what these signs on the door mean? "C + M + B" plus the year are chalked onto wooden doors (they often use a sticker on apartment block doors). The letters stand for "Christus mansionem benedicat", meaning "Christ Blesses this House ". The inscription left by the Star Singers on the door frame is intended to bless each person stepping over the threshold.