’Twas the season, but it certainly didn’t feel like it; I was on a post-graduation backpacking trip in scorching Sydney, Australia, and the familiar gray skies and sleet of Europe seemed a lifetime away. But the sticky heat and party atmosphere at my youth hostel couldn’t stop me from sharing my beloved festive traditions. I remember the baffled look of my English then-boyfriend when he pulled chocolate out of his shoes along with nuts, a couple of tangerines, and an apple on the morning of Dec. 6. I had had to travel more than 16,000 km away from home to realize that St. Nicholas might still be important to me – he, well, he hadn’t quite made his way over the channel.
It was his loss – the traditions of Nikolo and Krampus remains one of the most cherished in Central Europe, a bit of living folklore that has survived to this day to strike joy (and fear) into the hearts of children. Every year on Dec. 5 – the eve of feast of St. Nicholas – Austrian children place a shoe (or a boot, if they’re greedy!) in front of their doors or on a windowsill, knowing full well that good St. Nick (or Nikolo, as we affectionately refer to him) will fill them with treats. The next day on Dec. 6, you’ll see “him” dressed in his traditional bishop’s robes visiting kindergartens and homes.
But he usually doesn’t travel alone – Austrian children must beware his infernal servant, Krampus! The antithesis to the kind saint, Krampus is a terrifying figure, a horned, hoofed devil with matted fur, and adorned with noisy chains and bells; while Nikolo brings treats, Krampus has a birch switch to punish the naughty. In earlier times, he even had a bag strapped to his back to carry off special offenders. Sort of a metaphysical good cop–bad cop.
Krampus also features strongly in the alpine Perchtenläufe, traditional processions where an entire squad of performers in goat hides and grotesque masks wreak havoc in the streets – until St. Nicholas calls them back. If not for the pandemic, these Krampusumzüge would once again be taking place all over Austria.
The tradition is said to have started in 4th century Myra – then the Roman empire, today southwestern Turkey – when the local bishop, St. Nicholas, became known far and wide for his boundless generosity and charitable endeavors. Legend has it, he saved three poor girls from prostitution by throwing gold nuggets through their window – which is why he is also the patron saint of prostitutes, among many others, like sailors, children, students and the entire nation of Greece.
Remembering his benevolence, locals started to give presents to children on his feast day: usually round objects resembling those mythic lumps of gold, like nuts and fruits. The custom traveled to Northern Europe from Southern Italy, where merchants had brought the bishop’s remains just before Myra was conquered by the Seljuks in 1087. Gifts were initially thrown as in the legend, but as the littlest children often came away empty-handed, St. Nicholas gradually switched to placing his gifts in empty containers, such as socks or shoes.
By the time I grew up in the progressive ’90s, Nikolo was going stag when he came to spread holiday cheer, as Krampus no longer reflect modern ideas of child rearing. My mum however – born in 1962 – still remembered the sheer terror of the neighbor’s son hiding under their kitchen table, because his parents had invited St. Nick’s evil henchman over their house.
My childhood memories, by contrast, are utterly delightful – placing freshly polished shoes outside the door on St. Nicholas eve and waking with excitement the next morning as we rushed out to find them filled with little gifts, and of course, some chocolate, walnuts and fruit. Truth be told, I never really liked the bright red apples. But precious indeed it all was.
The good news in these pandemic-stricken times, is that the clandestine giving of treats works just fine. Currently, Nikolo is allowed to visit both at home and at school as long as he remains on the doorstep and talks to children from outside. Even saints have to adhere to social distancing!
Some impersonators are being extra careful, though, sticking to video chats and personalized video messages. Parents might also consider donning the miter themselves, a straightforward and cheaper option (In Vienna, a home visit costs about €50–€80 if Krampus tags along).
As for me, it’s been some time since St. Nicholas last paid a visit, even though I was already at university and had just moved into my first apartment. And unlike my English friend, I was thrilled to find my shoes filled with treats on the morning of Dec. 6.
I think it was the building super… But I didn’t ask. It would only destroy the magic.
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