I was born in Salzburg, Austria, a city populated primarily with Roman Catholics. We began each year’s celebration of the birth of Christ with Advent on the first Sunday in December. As children, nearly a century ago, our traditions were quite different from those I share with my family in North America today. For one thing, we were not permitted see the decorated Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. And for another, we did not have a ‘Santa Claus’, the roly-poly jolly man shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho!” with a toy factory at the North Pole and a sled drawn by magic flying reindeer.
Saint Nicholas was a Greek Bishop of the 4th century and was canonized as the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants and pawnbrokers, for the miracles that were attributed to him at that time.
I do not know when it became a custom in Austria for Saint Nicholas to make his rounds to households with children, nor do I know why it became tradition for him to be accompanied by a descendant of Satan as his helper, a creature with black fur, who toted the Bishop’s sack of goodies, but also carried a threatening bundle of brushwood switches. In any case, these were the personalities that symbolized the beginning of our Christmas season – Saint Nicholas and the Krampus.
I remember only one of these visits from Saint Nicholas and his demonic assistant. I was five years old, the youngest of six children. My parents had had us prepare for this anticipated visit by writing our lists of Christmas wishes which we would have to hand over to the Bishop at nightfall on December 6th only after we had been given his blessing and been forgiven for our sins. I didn’t really know, at that age, what to expect. All I knew was that there were wishes to be fulfilled.
As promised, the Bishop with his ugly, terrifying furry companion arrived at our door when the sun had gone down. Saint Nicholas proceeded to list the petty crimes I had committed over the course of the last year, then pointed out my bad habits. I started to cry for surely this holy man, looking into the souls of sinners, could see the truth! And whenever he pointed out one of my transgressions or faults, the black horned Krampus, hunchbacked and leering, would raise his bundle of switches to swipe at me. The kind bishop calmly held him off each time, but I shivered, waiting for the sin that would have me whipped.
Finally, the Bishop ordered the Krampus to lower his weapon and instead to open the sack. Through my tears, I was greatly relieved to see that I was being handed a present. I was forgiven.
I only found out years later that Saint Nicholas was, in fact, an old uncle of mine, and Krampus was played by our cook, a dark shaggy rug thrown over a sack of chicken feed on her back transforming her too convincingly for a small boy of five to see through the charade. My brothers and sisters had merely played along.
My mother held me on her lap, consoling me after my ordeal, while the Bishop and the Krampus were given drinks to toast a merry Christmas, and everyone was given an edible replica of the devilish helper. I held the six-inch figure made of black dried prunes in my small hands, but looking wide-eyed at the real thing across the table, was a bit nervous to actually bite into my Zwetschgen Krampus.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.