December 5th is a special day in Austria: it is the day before St. Nikolaus, which means it is “Krampus Day”. For all those of you who are not familiar with Austrian Christmas: we do not have Santa Clause. Our presents are delivered by Christkind which is a small angel-like figure representing Baby Jesus. Our “big” day is December 24th and this is also when we exchange presents. But we do have a our version of Santa Clause as well and this is the previously mentioned Nikolaus. On the night of December 5th , Nikolaus visits the good children and reads from his golden book. Side note for all parents: yes, there is a guy you can hire who dresses up like Nikolaus and before he enters, you tell him what your children have done in the past year. Nikolaus usually praises the children for some good things and then finds one naughty thing which you should better next year. (I was always scared of that guy with his weird golden book, but that is a different story.)
After Nikolaus reads out the nice and naughty things, he leaves some gifts. These are usually not as big as the ones children get on Christmas Eve – most of the time it is chocolates, peanuts, mandarins and small toys or books. We even had a special type of house, called “Niklo-Häusl” (I am well aware that this is quite difficult to pronounce for all the non-Austrian speakers). My grandfather used to make small wooden houses wrapped in red paper and the sweets were hanging on that house.
This is the version for the nice children. If you were naughty, somebody else visits you: Krampus. He looks like a kind of beast with horns and fur in brown-reddish shades. He also has scary eyes and a long tongue. Krampus accompanies St. Nikolaus in case the naughty ones need to get punishment. And we are talking real, brutal punishment here: Krampus puts the children in his bag, carries them away and beats them. As children, we were terrified of this creature – for a reason, as you can imagine. Luckily, Krampus never visited us, only Nikolaus showed up at our door.
When we got older, the “brave kids” went to chase Krampus (this activity is called “Kramperl-Jauken” in dialect). My brother did it once with two friends: they waited until it got dark and then searched for Krampus in the streets of our town. Usually older teenagers dressed up as Krampus. My brother and his friends went out thinking it would be fun to meet Krampus. But when I came home that day, I found my brother and one friend at home, completely terrified – Krampus scared the sh*t out of them, they had to kneel down in the street and pray. The other friend was nowhere to be found. Mind you, this was the time before we had mobile phones. Hence, my grandmother went out looking for him and finally found him completely lost on the main street. What sounds like a funny story today was actually quite scary when it happened.
Until today, there are Krampus “parades” in many towns. Men dress up like Krampus and walk the streets. This also dates back to the times when people chased bad spirits out of the towns hundreds of years ago. These Krampus people then pick some of the young women and scare them – or “attempt” to beat them. Some of my friends liked those parades when we were teenagers. I actually never liked it and it also freaked me out. I found it so brutal. What if you are picked by one of those crazies, they really beat you and everyone around you finds it funny? I also never understood why they only went for the young women. Maybe there is a strange link in history but I also find it weird that we celebrate some male creatures beating up women in public – while domestic violence is a problem still in many Austrian households. But maybe I do not understand this part of our culture…
As you can imagine, I am staying in tonight. Not because I have to fear Krampus – I have nothing to fear, because I was nice the whole year, of course. 😉 But until today, I find it a bit creepy to be on the street that day. Also, it really helps that the weather is miserable at the moment. Hence, I will enjoy a nice cup of hot chocolate in front of the fireplace instead.
If you want to learn more about Krampus, there is a very funny video of Christoph Waltz explaining the concept to an American audience in The Tonight Show.
I wish you all a happy Krampus/St. Nikolaus Day and hope that the latter will visit you.