Posted by: Nazausgraben | December 6, 2011


Santa Claus does not come to Austria and Bavaria. Rather, each December 6th we celebrate the coming of the ancient Bishop of Myra, Nicholas who, through his many deeds of great kindness, charity, suffering under Diocletian,  unwavering holiness and several miraculous acts was, I believe, canonized as early as in the 4th century.

Today, dressed in flowing robes with a mitre atop his head and a long staff topped by an elegant crozier in his hand, the Bishop visits village homes, seeking out children to see if they have been ‘naughty or nice’ throughout the year. 

St. Nicholaus Visits Homes During the Evening of 5 December

Nicholas is welcomed into the home (usually in the family room or Stueben) and the  family gathers about him. Nicholas then recites a short poem. Each child then stands before Nicholaus and he addresses them, noting the highlights of their yearly adventures (as provided to Nicholaus by the ever-helpful parents).  The wise saint then tenderly addresses them, praising their good behaviors and admonishing them to remain on their best behavior during the coming year. If a child has been good (and almost all are!), they receive a small gift from Nicholas.

Then, of course, there are those whose behavior during the year past was less than laudatory. In times past, these children (usually boys) were handed over to a rather nasty creature called the Krampus…a terrible fate indeed.

A Rather Nasty-Looking Krampus Approaches. A Thrashing is Sure to Follow.

Krampus is the ancient Alpineland manifestation of evil nightmares, akin to the wonderful Brothers Grimm fairytale creatures from our childhood days.  It is a long-haired hideous ape-like biped, sporting long pointed horns out of each side of its head. Rather nasty looking fangs and a long pointy tongue are found within a malodorous twisted mouth. Krampus oozes Albtraum evil from every pore. They prance and run, growling and loudly proclaiming their presence by ringing huge bells attached to belts about their ‘waists’ and rattling large rusty chains.

Another Krampus on the Prowl

Krampus is not alone as such fearful creatures that accompany St. Nicholas can be found throughout most of Europe and come in many forms. In other parts of Austria and throughout Germany, one might find Knecht Ruprecht and “Swarze Peter (Black Peter), who, dressed from head to toe in black, looks more like a deranged chimneysweep than a fearful fiend. Whatever its transmogrified form, most parents will not permit Krampus to enter their homes when there are very small children about; only the older children need take heed.

Whatever its manifestation, Krampus takes the miscreant child, and provides some type of punishment…. be it a light slap on the rear with a bundle of branches, or some other form of “strafe”…all this to instill sufficient fear into the child so as to preclude further misdemeanors during the year to follow. Susi tells me that a couple of misbehaving lads from her school days were locked by Krampus in the school coal cellar for a short time as their punishment.

Of course, all of this comes from the notion from time immemorial that the best way to deter (if not extinguish) negative behavior is to instill the fear of punishment. Can you imagine such things occurring today outside of continental Europe? Poor Krampus would be hauled posthaste off to prison, charged with child abuse, hate speech, bigotry, pedophilia, non-inclusivity, violating separation of Church and State and committing acts of terrorism against children. Such mad sad times in which we live.

As all of this transpired last night (on 5 December), when a number of  us here in Pinswang converged on the Glueheweinstandl…a small wooden hut located on the village square. It is here during the entire period from Advent through the New Year that friends and neighbors can gather and, standing in the bitter cold, enjoy cups of piping hot spiced mull wine, snack on Spatzelkraut, a wurst or hot cheese waffle. It is here also that the news of the day is transmitted throughout all gathered via  the ‘bush telephone’… informal banter and chatter.

There is no better way to discover that someone has been sent to the hospital, or it is someone’s 60th birthday on Friday or that a new market is to be built near the village, or that European Union technocrats are again limiting the amount of milk that Austrians can produce and have created laws dictating when farmers may or may not spread fertilizer on their own fields…..such matters. Now, these might not be worldly items of great import to many of the elites in Brussels, but to those living the realities of daily Austrian village life, such news is as important as the blood flowing through our veins. Yet, midst all this, our conversations invariably turn to this most beautiful time of the Tirolean year.

A quick glance about us shows that some homes are already decorated with Christmas lights….small electronic stars glitter in windows and both trees and bushes, now devoid of anything green, are bedecked with strings of white lights.

From within some homes, one can hear music being played or sung. Indeed, as we travel the days through Advent toward Christmas, there is still much music to be made and heard. It is not of the wonderfully celebratory nature as heard in the US and England; rather, it reflects the serene reflective anticipatory quiet as we wait for the birth of Our Lord. Indeed, social merrymaking generally tends to be rather low-key during this time; all must be patient and wait until Christmas Day.

Yet, there is still great joy in this time. Concerts are everywhere as are the wonderful Advent Markets (also called Christmas Markets or Christkindl Markets…depending on where you are). Wooden stall are built in town squares, in courtyards within the walls of ancient castles, on the grounds of Abbeys (photo attached). They are bedecked in colorful lights as is the Christmas tree that dominates the Markt. The huts are filled with vast arrays of colorful hand-made gifts. There are skillfully crafted wooden toys and Christmas tree decorations, thick woven winter socks and fleece-lined slippers, freshly baked goods, smoked meats, carved figures for the Krippe (Nativity scenes)….nothing from factories or imported from Asia…all is made or produced by hand. Most sellers manning these booths are ones neighbors…. locals from the surround.

The Weihachtsmarkt in the Nearby Bavarian Border Town of Füssen

Choirs, brass ensembles and village bands provide music of the season. Visitors stroll from hut to hut, or lean against small high-pedestal tables…. balancing a 6-month old in one arm, a hot wurstsemmel in one hand and a Gluehwein in the other. The brittle cold air is filled with the mixture of talk, laughter and music.

Now that work is becoming less hectic, everyone will spend as much time as possible with friends and family. Susi and I will also visit with neighbors, just stopping on by at the spur of the moment, small gifts in hand, to spend quiet evenings chatting, eating freshly baked Christmas cookies and cakes, sipping a schnapps or two, singing (every family has instruments and all can play and sing) and enjoying the ever-present Gluehwein. Thereafter we’ll walk back to our own hut….slowly, savoring the late night stillness of our valley, the crunch of our boots in the fresh snow, the wisps of flakes falling on our faces, anticipating the comforting warmth to come as we near our home there in the snowy darkness far across the field.

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