It is nearly the season for the white-bearded, red-clad Nikolo to visit children at their homes or in their schools and kindergartens – a tradition important enough that, even in lockdown, the government has given permission for him to visit, so long as he shows 2G proof (vaccinated or recovered) or wears an FFP2 mask. In many Austrian regions and families, Nikolo brings a devilish Krampus along with him. Where Nikolo – also known as Sankt Nikolaus or St. Nicholas – distributes nuts and sweets to good little children, Krampus carries a switch to punish bad kids. But how did Nikolo and Krampus end up working together?
Of the pair, the origins of St. Nicholas are better known. He was a historical bishop who lived in Myra, now part of Turkey, during the 4th Century where, as National Geographic reported, he “developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303,” leading to his years-long imprisonment by the Romans.
But the detail and color that set him on a post-humous journey toward jolly old elfhood appear to have been added much, much later: Michael the Archimandrite wrote the first complete biography of Nicholos nearly 500 years after the bishop’s death, recording several legendary tales of generosity and charity.
One family in Nicholas’s neighborhood, the story goes, became so poor that the daughters were to be sold to a brothel. The wealthier Nicholas overheard their laments and secretly tossed three bags of gold into the girls’ house through the window, thus saving them and their father from a shameful fate.
Another miraculous tale, reportedly very popular in the Middle Ages, tells of how Nikolo resurrected three boys who had been murdered, dismembered and pickled by either an evil butcher or an innkeeper – which may be another reason why St. Nick is associated with the care of little children.
Here in Europe, Nikolo became the patron saint of many: children, sailors, students, and prisoners. Centuries after his death, his feast day became associated with gifts for children, which became the tradition we know today. (Elsewhere, the Nikolo legend took several geographic turns – notably through the Protestant Netherlands. He was then re-imagined in the United Kingdom and the United States in poems, stories and later by the advertising industry and Hollywood. By twists and turns, this resulted in the reindeer-riding, toymaking, North Pole-living elf named Santa Claus or Father Christmas celebrated by many English-speakers today.)
Krampus, on the other hand, has a much more tangled history, at least according to the scholarly work Wild und schön: der Krampus im Salzburger Land, written by Matthäus Rest and Gerti Seiser.
The Austrian Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon monster usually adorned with noisy chains and bells, who visits children with Nikolo at the beginning of advent season.
The origin of the word “Krampus” is unclear. The most reliable german Dictionary, Duden, is also only guessing: the word Krampus perhaps relates to “Krampen” (staples) because the dark figure always carries an iron pick to beat naughty children. In 1860, the old Viennese chronicler, Heinrich von Levitschnigg, claimed that Krampus is a Viennese expression people use to refer to Satan, even though Krampus isn’t quite the lord of evil.
According to Ulrike Kammerhofer-Aggermann, Head of the Salzburg State Institute for Folklore, Nikolo and Krampus were first tied together through the so-called Nikolausspiele (St. Nicholas’ plays and customs) of Bavaria and Tirol in the 17th to 19th century. Travelling theaters across the region visited homes and staged short plays starring Nikolo, Lucifer, angels, and Lucifer’s sub-devils, such as Krampus.
These performances transformed into a tradition of men dressing as Nikolo and Krampus to bring gifts and threats to children’s homes. In the 18th century, these home visits were common only in bourgeois and aristocratic circles but expanded as time went on.
How to celebrate
These days, the Krampus tale has moved on and the demonic character can be found causing a ruckus as the star of his own events. Krampus events take place from mid-November until Christmas time in Austria, and Krampuslauf is sometimes used interchangeably with Perchtenlauf, though they refer to different wintery demons. Participants, almost always young men, put on terrifying demon costumes and walk, run or perform dance shows.
These days, kids and adults cherish the tradition of St. Nicholas and Krampus in Austria – and families can even “order” a St. Nick to visit their own homes and institutions, as METROPOLE has previously reported.
Here’s how it works: On December 5, children clean their shoes, put them in front of their doors or on a windowsill, and wait. Traditionally, Nikolo fills the children’s boots with treats under cover of the night. But legends say children who receive a rod instead of presents in their shoes will be taken away by the Krampus.
Nikolo also visits children at kindergartens, elementary schools, and homes and presents the “good ones” (i.e. all of them) with gifts on December 6 – often nuts, clementines and chocolate. Sometimes Nikolo is dressed in traditional bishop’s robes, but usually dons red clothes and a big white beard, like Santa Claus. His cruel companion, Krampus, the yin to the yang, has a birch switch and might (i.e. will not) punish kids who can’t behave.
Nicholas and Krampus, indeed, are intended to carry an old-school Christian message: Those who are willing to repent and repent will redeemed; those who don’t, watch out.
However you choose to celebrate, the tradition of Nikolo and Krampus adds spice to the advent season and ushers in the magical, mythical spirit of Christmas.