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Winter
Customs and Traditions
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7,5 in. x 4 in die cut of St. Nicholas and Krampus driving an old timer
Lithograph, ca. 1920s.

St. Nicholas Eve - Krampus Day

December 5th, Saint Nicholas Eve is known as Krampus Day in some parts of Austria and the run of the Krampuses (fertility devils) is preserved both in the Tarvisio area, in Italy near the Austrian border, and in Südtirol/Alto Adige. Krampus is an evil fertility demon that has a long tail, fur, rattling chain, birch branch, and big black bag. Children and adults go to the village square and throw snowballs to scare him off. Some people dress up as Krampus. A speculatius cookie is baked for the day. Bread baked in the shape of Saint Nicholas or Krampus is for sale. On Saint Nicholas Eve children place their shoes on the window sill or outside their bedroom door to be filled with fruits, nuts, and sweets.

The many legends and traditions surrounding the saintly Nikolaus' often wild companions are more diverse than those of the saint. The pagan origin of all of these figures is evident although difficult to trace. The best known companion is Knecht Ruprecht, "Knecht" meaning servant. Historically, Ruprecht was a dark and sinister figure clad in a tattered robe with a big sack on his back in which, legend has it, he will place all naughty children. However, Knecht Ruprecht also became the servant and companion of the Christchild. In this role Ruprecht became the patron saint of Christmas and was called "Weihnachtsmann," Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

This is quite in contrast to Bavaria, where St. Nikolaus may be followed by the hideous Klaubauf, a shaggy monster with horns. In Austria the saint is followed by a similar horned creature, called Krampus, covered with bells and dragging chains.

Lovely old Krampus card, titled "Greetings from Krampus", signed with initials A.G. Old artist postcard (not a reproduction), standard size 5-1/2 in. x 3-1/2 in. Published in Zagreb, Croatia circa 1920.

 

Who is Krampus?

The Krampus is a sort of devil who accompanies St. Nikolaus on the eve of December 6, in Styria this attendant is named Bartel. He accompanies St. Nicholas, who visits every home during the night and leaves small gifts in the shoes of children who have been good during the past year. Those who have misbehaved, however, may get punished by his helper. He might take back the gifts that St. Nicholas left for them, and leave them a lump of coal instead. He might give them a birching with the switch he carries with him. Really bad children might even get carried off in his sack and taken along, or even put into an ink-well by St. Nick himself, as told in the Struwwelpeter: "Da kam der grosse Nikolas Mit seinem grossen Tintenfass.... Er tunkt sie in die Tinte tief, Wie auch der Kaspar "Feuer" rief. Bis "bern Kopf ins Tintenfass Tunkt sie der grosse Nikolas."

Krampus is also known in Austria as Kneckt Ruprecht and Black Peter. In Germany he may be called Pelzebock, Pelznickel (or Belznickel), Hans Muff, Bartel, Gumphinkel, Stoppklos, Black Pit, or Knecht Ruprecht. To this day, the Running of the Krampus (Krampuslauf) happens during the first week of December. In Salzburg, young men put on dark animal-skin suits, red carved masks with horns or antlers, and mismatched shoes. They stomp down the Getreidegasse, the main shopping street, ringing cowbells, pretending to snatch little children, and hitting people on the leg with the switches they use for tails. St. Nicholas follows behind, handing out candies.

Krampus Runs (Krampus Lauf)

The run of the Krampuses (fertility diables) is preserved both in the Tarvisio area, in Italy near the Austrian border, and in Südtirol/Alto Adige. Children and adults go to the village square and throw snowballs to scare him off. Some people dress up as Krampus. A speculatius cookie is baked for the day. Bread baked in the shape of Saint Nicholas or Krampus is for sale. On Saint Nicholas Eve children place their shoes on the window sill or outside their bedroom door to be filled with fruits, nuts, and sweets.

All around Salzburg there are Krampus runs around December 5th, preceding the festival of St. Nikolaus. The tradition in the National Park region is that St. Nikolaus comes with not just a single Krampus but with a group of up to ten of these devil figures. They are frightening (especially for children) with their horns and terrible masked faces. The Krampus masks (known as Larven) show the artistic dexterity of the hand carving in the Tauern region. A proper Krampus Larve must of course have large horns. The carver usually uses the horns of a goat, Ibex or Chamois.

There are two possibilities to get a glimpse of Nikolaus and his Krampuses in the Salzburg region. The first possibility is if you have children, then you can invite Nikolaus into your home. The second possibility is to visit one of the street runs or parades. This custom has nothing to do with spirits or driving out winter; rather it deals primarily with good upbringing and conduct. Well-behaved children are rewarded and naughty ones punished.

There is also another closely related custom, the Perchten run. This custom is carried out with the same masks, but only in the wild nights around the sixth of January. This custom is concerned with driving out evil spirits, that is, winter.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

There is no reliable information about the historical Nicholas. It is thought that he was Bishop of Myra in the first half of the 4th century, that he participated in the Council of Nicaea and pursued charitable works. In the Eastern Church he is regarded as the greatest saint after the Mother of God. The transfer of his remains from Myra to Bari (1087) led to him being venerated also in the Occident. Nicholas is regarded as a helper of the needy. His function as a bringer of gifts derives from the numerous legends concerning this charitable saint.

The customs that have grown up around the Feast of St. Nicholas go back to a very old tradition, originally celebrated on 28th December, the feast of the Holy Innocents. It was later moved to December 5-6 and become a saint's day for St. Nicholas, who pronounced judgement on the children, tested them on their catechism and rewarded their performance either with a gift or with punishment from his lackey, Krampus. To counter superstition, Martin Luther forbade these Nicholas customs in the Lutheran area. Instead, the "Holy Christ", the "Christ Child" himself was to be the bringer of gifts.

Today it is customary that on the Eve of St. Nicholas (5th December, Krampus Eve) "Nicolo", as he is popularly known, personally gives the children little presents, or puts gifts in their own or little hand-made shoes. In contradiction to earlier days there should be no frightening or threatening, no putting of moral pressure on the children, especially when St. Nicholas is involved, who always interceded for the suffering and needy.

Sources:

  • http://www.babcockandcooke.com/other/cattk.htm
  • http://www.geocities.com/americanaustriansociety/nikolokrampus.html
  • Gruppo Krampus, Travisio Centrale - http://www.krampus.135.it/
  • Top image - http://pages.tias.com/8984/PictPage/1922029698.html
  • eBay (postcards)

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Created: Sunday, December 05, 2004; Last updated, Sunday, December 20, 2015
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