**I share this piece every year on Dec. 6th, celebrated in German-speaking countries as Nikolaustag. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing it again, especially the awesome look at Krampus in action! (video at the end of the post)
With the holidays upon us, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy a visit to Austria where a very special event marks the begin of the Christmas season.
Tuesday, Dec. 6th, is Nikolaustag in Europe’s German-speaking countries. A day to celebrate St. Nikolaus, it’s one of the Christmas highlights I miss most from my years in Germany. Thanks to the tea room’s magick, I’m able to share this holiday tradition with you.
As you read on, you’ll understand why Christmas in Germany spoiled me. And I’m betting you’d also thrill to experience the event I’m about to describe.
You should know that, in Germany, Nikolaustag (St. Nick’s Day) is still celebrated in the old tradition. Clean and polished shoes are placed before your closed bedroom door so that St. Nikolaus can fill them with little gifts. Only if you were good throughout the year, of course. If so, on the morning of Dec. 6th, you would find such rewards as walnuts, oranges and apples, or pieces of small, wrapped candies tucked inside your shoes.
If you were bad, look for birch twigs or bits of coal.
People also exchange other small presents. Nothing extravagant. Just a token to show affection for the person receiving the gift.
A nice way to start the holiday season, wouldn’t you say?
But Nikolaustag has much more in store than walnut-and-orange-filled shoes. Come with me to Austria for a holiday happening you’ll never forget.
My home in Germany was in Bavaria, in the foothills of the Alps. Salzburg of Sound of Music fame was just an hour’s drive away. And it’s into that country we’re going now. But we’re bypassing Salzburg and heading right into the Austrian Alps, to a tiny village where friends owned a rustic lodge…
In those years, I spent nearly every Nikolaustag there.
This is about my first visit. My first encounter with Austrian Krampus. (pronounced Gram-poos)
Nothing prepared me for the occasion. Looking back, I’m glad my friends didn’t warn me. It would’ve spoiled the surprise if I’d known what to expect when, on the evening of Dec. 6th, we left the lodge and drove back down the mountain into the teeny village.
We were having dinner at the village inn.
It was a beautiful night. Cold, brittle air took one’s breath, but also invigorated. A black velvet sky glittered with stars. Thick snow blanketed the mountains, a wintry landscape that glowed with the bluish light of the moon. Deep pine woods edged the road, boughs heavy with snow. Here and there, light from other lodges could be glimpsed through the trees. Or a curl of smoke rising from someone’s wood fire showed as a smudge of gray against the night sky.
The village itself could’ve been walked end to end in an eyeblink.
I recall a general store that also served as a post office and gas station. A bank, an inn, and one or two pubs. The mountains closed in tight on the village, not allowing for more. Homes were high up on the slopes. And the one road running through the village was the only road.
To me, the Alpine hamlet could’ve been a Christmas card.
The inn’s restaurant was equally pleasing. White-washed walls were hung with colorful ceramic plates and bowls, the stone-flagged floor was immaculate, while sturdy oaken tables and a roaring fire lent coziness. The feel of another, long-ago time. The place was crowded, too.
Nikolaustag is popular in Austria. And everyone had the same idea we did that night.
Namely to have dinner in the village.
Luckily, we nabbed a table.
The beer was excellent. (German beer always is) Our thick split pea soup hit the spot, warming us after the frigid temps outside. And our Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal cutlets) was divine. I love Wiener Schnitzel. And I was about halfway through mine when I discovered the real reason we were in the village for dinner.
I knew the instant the restaurant door flew open and the Krampus burst in.
Krampus are demons or devils come to make mischief and terrorize anyone brave enough to be out after dark on Dec. 6th, Nikolaustag.
In truth, Krampus are roving bands of rowdy village men in furred costumes and wearing huge, frightening masks. They carry birch switches and don’t hesitate to use them. They also rattle chains and have sacks of coal.
When they enter an inn, they make the rounds to each table, swatting at diners, tossing coal about, and – get this! – trying to snatch and carry off pretty young girls.
(this they do, though to be honest, the girls are not harmed… they’re let loose again after being carried outside, though the Krampus sometimes demand a kiss in exchange for release.)
They truly are frightening. To see a group of them coming down a night-darkened village road does make your blood race. They shake parked cars and take glee in surrounding cars trapped driving through the village, leering in through the windows as they brandish their birch switches.
You can imagine my shock when they burst into the inn.
I’m sure my eyes went saucer-round.
But it was all in good fun.
And that wasn’t even the end of Nikolaustag.
The rest isn’t scary, though.
After the Krampus leave, good St. Nikolaus arrives. He enters the inn, or whatever, with his own bag of treats. And his, of course, are welcome gifts. Apples, oranges, and nuts, usually. These, he hands out to everyone, making the rounds of the tables just as the Krampus did before him.
And, of course, the whole point of the spectacle is to show goodness prevailing over evil.
It’s a tradition harkening back hundreds of years and even farther, having deep roots that stretch beyond Christianity to the distant pagan past.
Either way, you can believe I kept a careful eye on the thick pine woods as we wound our way back up the steep, mountainous road to my friends’ lodge that night. I’d learned that, after visiting the village, the Krampus head up into the surrounding hills, making the rounds of the homes.
I didn’t sleep well that night, my gaze always going to the moonlit square of the window, expecting a leering devil face to appear there.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
But I did see the Krampus again, on subsequent Nikolaustag visits to my friends’ Alpine lodge.
I’d love to be there this Dec. 6th. Would love to see the Krampus again. I don’t know if I ever will, but I am so glad for the memories. My friends were right not to forewarn me that first time. Some of the ancient magic would’ve been stolen if they’d ruined the surprise.
And that would’ve been a shame, loving tradition as I do.
It was a privilege to experience such an age-old custom. And it’s such things that I miss so much now, being away from Germany (and Austria) at Christmas. The holidays in Florida just can’t compare. In fact, I’ve become quite the Grinch, living here.
But on rare December nights when the temps dip low enough to let me light a fire and the wind howls just right, I lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and I’m there again. Wide-eyed and delighted, as a band of yelling, leaping wild men in devil masks burst into a cozy Alpine inn….
Here’s a look at them in action, filmed in the Austiran city of Graz..
Krampus Events such a this parade in Graz are organized and much more ‘professional’ than the rustic ’Krampus rounds’ I knew and and loved in the tiny and remote Alpine villages.
Either way, this is a wonderfully fun (and ancient) tradition.
**Please note, a visitor named Detroit Al originally sent me the Graz Krampus video. If you see this, Detroit Al, thank you again! I really appreciated your thoughtfulness and enjoy the video every year on Dec. 6th.
Also, I removed all original comments except Linda Townsend’s because she included the video of a holiday event she participates in, in Orlando. It’s fun to watch, especially as Linda is in the video. Enjoy!