Today, December 5, we visit the land of music, skis, coffee and leather shorts: Austria. Fill in the country of Austria with their colors, red, white, red. It’s an easy country to find on the map as it is the one that looks most like a turkey leg. Maybe that’s why I am associating it with the holidays.
I don’t know about you, but in my family’s house, we usually watched “The Sound of Music” at some point in our holiday season. I am doing it with my kids too, they love to sing along, but the movie itself has nothing in it about Christmas. Maybe Austria, where it was filmed, has an atmosphere that easily reminds us of snowy mountains, pine trees and paper packages tied up with string.
Austria is a Catholic country, although the number of practicing Catholics has dropped in recent years. The traditions live on, especially at this time of year. Many homes will have Advent candles, one for each Sunday of the Advent season, lit on Sundays at dinner. Advent calendars are popular, with local cultural twists like a calendar of different types of coffee. As an aside, it is said that coffee became popularized in Europe after the Turks, who had invaded Austria and Poland, were defeated in 1683. Their abandoned camps had leftover coffee, which the Austrians quickly took to and later used to open specialized coffee shops in Vienna, some of which still operate today. So, thank the Turks and the Austrians next time you grab something at Starbucks.
Austria is such a sweet and picturesque place, full of peaceful villages and snowy mountain tops. But, as in all idyllic places, something lurks beneath the surface. The Tyrollean area to the west has a strong mountain tradition of fairy tales, myths, fables and legends. Most villages have their own unique set of tales, usually meant to warn children of dangers or give a moral education. This history of folklore has blended with Christian traditions, producing some curious results.
Many countries in Europe celebrate St Nicholas day, which is December 6. The night before, children will leave their shoes (not socks) outside of the door and wait for St. Nicholas to come by in the night and leave treats. In Austria and the southern regions of Germany, St. Nicholas isn’t the only one who visits in the night. Santa has a companion. Santa visits the nice kids and leaves treats, but the naughty ones get a terrifying visit from the goat-demon called the Krampus on the 5th…and probably a visit to the psychiatrist on the 6th.
The Krampus is seen on antique Christmas cards whipping children, licking them with a spiked tongue, or leading a chain gang of sorrowful naughty children. It’s disturbing, but has evolved from a long tradition of dark fairy tales. You know the Brothers Grimm, undoubtedly, but have you actually read their original stories? They tend to be scary and a little messed up. Read the original “Beauty and the Beast” if you’re ever in the mood to have Disney ruined forever.
The idea of the Krampus seems terrifying, but Austrians don’t see it that way. It seems that the Krampus is a counterpoint to the goodness of Santa, that without dark there can be no appreciation of light.
Krampus creatures are seen on this night at parades and runs, with many styles of demons in elaborate costumes. Dressing up is popular with young men, who often hit the beer halls after stalking the kiddies. After doing some reading about this, my kids came to the conclusion that the Krampus is the reason that Austrians and Germans are good at following directions.
Want to see what this Krampus business is all about? Skip the terrible movie of the same name and instead watch this video of a Krampus march from 2010. This was filmed in the Austrian city of Graz and gives you a sense of it. For me, I can see that fascinating mix of ancient Pagan ceremonies and Christian traditions that are fairly common in Europe. We have our own version, I suppose, on Halloween.
So tonight, if you’ve been good, put a shoe outside of your front door and hope that St. Nicholas arrives with sweets and little gifts. If you’ve been naughty, watch out! The Krampus is on his way….