St. Nicholas, the special children’s saint, is honored throughout Austria. It is said that God rewarded Nicholas’ generosity by allowing him to return to earth each year to bring gifts to all the good children. St. Nicholas comes on his feast day, a special holiday apart from Christmas. Some places he comes on St. Nicholas Eve, December 5, and other places on the day itself, December 6. St. Nicholas (or Nicolo or Niklaus) is dressed as a bishop with flowing robes and a miter. He carries a big book and a bishop’s crozier. During the year angels, who sometimes come with him, write children’s good and bad deeds in this book. When children promise to be good and study hard, St. Nicholas rewards them with a treat. He may come by himself or with angel helpers and/or a Krampus.
Prevalent in Austria is Krampus, a strange and frightening creature, really an anti-St. Nicholas, who comes to warn and punish naughty children (and adults). Frequently seen with St. Nicholas. this devil figure, often in chains, is dressed in fur with a scary devil mask with horns and a long red tongue. Krampus carries a wooden stick or switches to threaten children who misbehave or do not know their lessons. Many towns and cities have Krampus parades with many young men in elaborate fur costumes and devil masks. After the parade the Krampus figures scatter and beat anyone who gets in their way. It is very frightening and even dangerous.
The Krampuslauf in Salzburg brings 1500-2000 Krampuses to town on the last Saturday in November, a week before St. Nicholas Day. The gruesome run has been moved from the city center to the area around the exhibition center. Organizers now impose security measures to help keep everyone safe.
Austrian Christkindlmarkts open before St. Nicholas Day. There one finds delightful St. Nicholas delicacies—chocolates, marzipan, decorated cookies, even bread shaped like the good saint. The treats can be very small, just a single wrapped chocolate turned into a hand-made little Bishop Nicholas. Spiced speculatius cookies are shaped like the saint and Krampus. These are decorated with colored icing, fruit, and nuts. There are even prune-people of St. Nicholas and Krampus.
Children leave shoes for St. Nicholas on the windowsill or outside their bedroom doors. In the morning they find the good saint has filled good children’s shoes with oranges, apples, nuts, sweets, and small toys. Of course, all the children are good.
In some towns St. Nicholas processes from the church before giving little presents to all the children. Saint Nicholas, and Krampus, may also visit in homes to ask children if they have been naughty or nice and perhaps to recite their prayers. Or the Children may simply find treats in their shoes in the morning.
Seventy-five percent of Austrians give treats to children for St. Nicholas Day, mostly small gifts and chocolate. Nikolaus visits most kindergartens and primary schools; ten percent of families arrange home visits, too.
Krampus, was introduced in the 16th & 17th centuries as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas, rather than having commonly assumed pagan roots. His role is shifting—for better or worse?
Set during the Nazi era
More in other sections
Rescuing St. Nicholas from Santa Claus in Austria
St. Nicholas’ Day … in Austria & America
St. Nicholas Monuments in Austria
Have Yourself a Scary Little Krampus
How modified Krampus is spreading across the ocean