How Portland’s Krampus parade celebrates the naughty side of Christmas

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Since 2010, a parade of several dozen Christmas demons has marched along Hawthorne Boulevard, singing carols and carrying switches, aiming to awe and delight passersby.

Joseph Ragan, who organizes the annual Krampus Lauf each December, says the spirit of the event is about being a monster, but not a jerk. He hopes his band of costumed Krampuses, which will parade this Sunday, add to the array of holiday festivities.

“It’s a chance to have a demon parade in December that’s part of Christmas,” Ragan said. “We’re not crashing the Christmas party. We’re actually doing something that’s much more original to practiced Christmas tradition than Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

According to Alpine folklore, Krampus is St. Nicholas’ creepier Christmas companion. While Good Ol’ St. Nick delivers presents, Krampus punishes naughty children. He carries a sack to carry off the bad kids, and is often depicted in chains, symbolizing his service to the saint.

Krampus has been part of Central European Christmas traditions for hundreds of years, but more recently he’s become part of popular American culture. Portland hosts a number of “Pictures with Krampus” events where customers can sit on Krampus’ knee instead of Santa’s. The Fear PDX runs a Krampus-themed haunted house in December. In the 14 years Ragan has organized the Portland event, he’s found that more and more people recognize Krampus, particularly after the release of the 2015 comedy-horror film “Krampus.”

The Krampus Lauf is inspired by the array of elemental winter spirits and traditions celebrated in Central Europe: Klaubauf, the Bavarian Krampus equivalent; Belsnickel, a grumpy, disheveled bearer of both presents and punishment; and Frau Perchta, the “Christmas witch.” The various creatures and ogres come out during the longest, darkest nights of the year.

“It’s a time of cold and hunger and loneliness and sickness and death,” Ragan said. “It’s when people in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing some of the most difficult things about life.”

For Ragan, the Krampus Lauf is a way to acknowledge the “dark side of life,” to “give it a form, give it a name, give it a chance to run around,” and make those things less scary.

Portland’s Krampus parade is open to anyone, of all ages, to join. Aspiring Krampuses can deck themselves in horns and furs and bring chains, drums, rattles or bells. Ragan recommends natural materials for an inexpensive and eco-friendly costume. Masks can be made with moss or bark. Long, curvy pumpkin stems make great antlers.

Ragan gathers birch branches to make switches, which he hands out at the park before the procession. The group then wanders along Hawthorne Street, stopping every two blocks to sing a Krampus carol.

“Usually, the response we get is people light up and are just beckoning us in or running out to be swatted,” Ragan said. “We’ll have people come out of the pub, point their butts at us in a demand to be swatted with our floggers.”

Ragan emphasizes that the Krampus Lauf is not a bar crawl, though the procession does pass by several bars.

“We’re not trying to be a nuisance,” Ragan said. “I know that as a kid, the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to me would be to have an encounter with a numinous mythical creature of some type, and especially if it was a monster.”

Ragan, who does screen printing and fabric art for a living, also makes a variety of vestments and costumes for other celebrations. Outside Christmas, Ragan has organized gatherings at Mt. Tabor Park to celebrate seasonal equinoxes and solstices, inviting people to dress as nymphs, satyrs and other creatures.

“I’m trying to promote public, ritually theatrical, celebratory, seasonal processions,” he said. “I’m trying to promote the idea that people can generate their own cultural experiences, and they can do it in public. You can be weird, out loud, in public full time.”

If you go: The Portland Krampus Lauf starts at 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at Sewallcrest Park, Southeast 31st Avenue and Market Street, with a performance by the PDX Dancing Witches. The procession leaves the park at 4:30 p.m., heads north on Southeast 30th Avenue to Hawthorne, and travels east on Hawthorne to Cesar Chavez Boulevard. The procession turns around and ends back at the park around 6 p.m. For more information, follow Krampus Lauf PDX on Facebook.

-- Samantha Swindler,, @editorswindler

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