Hordes of shaggy, horned creatures clattered along the Fells Point cobblestones on a misty evening, whirling around a Christmas tree, shaking skull-topped staffs, and waggling their forked tongues.
Dressed as Krampus, an Alpine winter demon, and other holiday hobgoblins, the revelers at last weekend’s Fells Point Krampuslauf were taking part in a tradition older than the Elf on the Shelf, Rudolph and even Santa himself. They’re among a burgeoning group of Baltimoreans delving into dark customs traditionally practiced during the year’s darkest days.
“It’s edgy. It’s fun. It’s irreverent,” said John Long, also known as the Baltimore Krampus, the organizer of the Fells Point event. “People like to be scared a little.”
A decade ago, Krampus, a legendary beast said to punish naughty children in winter, was a novelty in the Baltimore area. But this year, more than 10 events are planned throughout the region. Matt Lake, the author of “Weird Maryland: Your Travel Guide to Maryland’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” has taken part in Baltimore Krampus events for the past decade. “Baltimore is just Krampus city at this point,” Lake said. “The place is just crawling with Krampuses.”
We think of winter as a time of seasonal malaise, fuzzy blankets and Hallmark movies, but for ancient people in cold climates, it was a time of terror. Ancient customs acknowledged that frigid temperatures, famine and disease darkened winter’s shadows.
“When you start digging into the season, it wasn’t always so jolly,” said Rissa Miller, a local historian who will be giving a talk about Krampus and other dark winter spirits at the Museum of Howard County History on Friday. “Winter is a fierce time.”
The monstrous goat-like Krampus bloomed from the Alpine psyche during pre-Christian times, although the word did not appear in print until the 1600s. For centuries, people in Austria, the mountainous regions of Germany and the Czech Republic have careened through the streets in fur and horns at this time of year, punishing, or threatening to punish, unruly children.
“These were cautionary tales,” Miller said.
The consequences of disobeying one’s parents mid-mountain, mid-winter were bleak. Stragglers could freeze or be eaten by wolves. A forgotten chore could lead to death.
Hence the Krampus, a demon seemingly invented by an exasperated parent. Appearing in early December, the Krampus carries birch switches to beat young miscreants. He sweeps away the worst in his pack, either to carry them off to hell or feast on their flesh in his lair.
As the Alpine people embraced the Saint Nicholas tradition, they folded Krampus into the celebration like the good saint’s Jungian shadow. On Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas Day, the two figures visit the homes of children with Saint Nick doling out presents and Krampus shaking his switch, the ying and yang of Yule.
Krampus hit the mainstream in this country about a decade ago and his fame, bolstered by the 2015 eponymous horror film, has continued to swell. This year, Krampus celebrations are planned at Charm City Meadworks, the Shamrock Inn in Hamilton and a Havre de Grace holistic health store.
If you missed last weekend’s Krampuslauf, or the running of the Krampuses, in Fells Point, slip on your fur suit for a trot through Hampden on Dec. 16. Or shake your hairy haunches at a Krampus dance party at the Crown in Station North on Dec. 22. Two local haunted houses, Bennett’s Curse in Dundalk and Laurel’s House of Horror, even brushed away their Halloween cobwebs to reopen with Krampus-themed winter chills.
Rob Hatch, a Baltimore filmmaker, has been organizing the city’s oldest Krampuslauf, the Hampden event, since 2014. He made his first mask with cardboard and gaffer’s tape, but now sports a spiffy, spooky vintage Austrian costume. “Krampus is getting a bit more commercialized, but he still retains his pagan roots,” said Hatch, who is also planning an event at Peabody Heights Brewery this Saturday.
Long, who is making numerous appearances as Krampus this season, including at Miller’s Howard County talk, first learned about the midwinter monster after reading about a 2013 event. Krampus burrowed into the brain of Long, who works in hospital finance.
He fashioned his long curved horns from pool noodles wound with tape, fangs from dental picks and a long, forked tongue from cosplay foam. He wears layers of fur robes, and carries a staff with a glowing red stone and, on his back, a basket from which peeps a ghoulish baby doll.
“People hire me to come to their houses and scare their kids,” Long said. But his Krampus has a soft side; he doesn’t charge admission for his events, and collects donations for Toys for Tots.
“My father was a steelworker and I remember many lean Christmases,” Long said. “Krampus is not a bad guy. He’s not here to hurt people; he’s enforcing the rules.”
Many of those who attend are fans of cosplay and enjoy creating elaborate costumes. Randy Jennings of Fredericksburg, Virginia, spent weeks unraveling and dying burlap to create the Krampus suit that he wore to Fells Point. For Jennings, Krampus is a “real, organic, of-the-earth and spiritual” tradition.
For those weary of Krampus, there are a bevy of other winter bogeymen, which Miller plans to discuss on Friday. A woman named Frau Perchta inspects German homes after the holidays, like a dark Martha Stewart, ensuring the woman of the house has fulfilled her housekeeping duties, Miller said.
In a related German tradition, the Schnabelperchten, broad-beaked figures that look like a terrifying mix of a plague doctor and a platypus, storm into homes brandishing brooms. If they find clutter, they pretend to slice open the homeowner with a giant pair of scissors and stash the trash inside.
The Mari Lwyd, a towering white horse skeleton festooned with ribbons, accompanies carolers in Wales, and challenges homeowners to a battle of rhymes. “It’s like a rap battle,” Miller said. Eventually, the residents run out of rhymes and invite in the carolers and Mari Lwyd for drinks and snacks.
On this continent, Native American traditions tells of the wendigo, a foul-smelling personification of cold, selfishness and hunger. The beast craves human flesh and infects others with its longing, Miller said.
Despite the ghastly tales surrounding these creatures, local creepy Christmas events are warm and welcoming. The crew of Krampuses, Mari Lwyd, Jack Skellingtons and zombie Santas dancing around Fells Point last weekend included many families.
One Krampus, Samantha Stapleton of Essex, carried a real child in her pack. She bundled her 9-month-old daughter, Salem, into a back carrier in fuzzy brown pajamas and a hat with tiny horns.
“I like traditions that aren’t exactly what you expect,” Stapleton said.