For many European families, St. Nicholas’ Day (SND) is the beginning of the holiday season. On December 6th (the anniversary of the death of Nikolaus of Myra), children would wake up to see if St. Nicholas had left a present in their shoes. The present was typically some sort of sweet treat (candy or fruit), and sometimes a small gift.
In my family, with Euro parents, we always did a little something for SND. My shoes would be filled with candy (typically M&Ms or Hershey Kisses) and a small gift (often something for skiing: ski socks, goggles, a hat, and the like).
In my youth, St. Nicholas was always a benevolent gift giver. And we would return the gift in kind to our neighbor, Nick, delivering him a bottle of brandy on his namesake day.
The night before SND is Krampusnacht, when the embodiment of the devil, Krampus, scours the towns looking for poorly behaved children. Krampus punishes the bad children – in the stories, he either beats them with a birch switch or stuffs them into his large sack, kidnapping them into a life of hard labor to pay the price for their evildoing. He evolved from pagan traditions, being wrapped into the Christian faith – specifically in relation to Saint Nicholas – sometime in the 17th century as a “bad cop” to Nicholas’ “good cop” persona.
And most European kids were scared to death of Krampus.
St. Nicholas and Krampus are fairly common figures throughout Europe, even if they don’t go by identical names. For example, in parts of Switzerland, St. Nicholas and Krampus are Sammichalus and Schmutzli. Rick Steves has a great clip of the Swiss Sammichlaus tradition that always brings a smile to my face (and yes, the vistas of the Alps and all the snow may have more than a little influence on that smile).
I asked my mom about her recollections of SND as a child during her time in the Salzach Valley area of Austria. She says that, to her and her friends, SND was always Krampustag (on the 6th rather than the 5th), with St. Nicholas and Krampus working their way through the small alpine village, going from house to house to see if the kids were good. As this was during World War II, the evil aspect of the holiday was at the fore, and the kids – especially refugees like my mom – took extra precautions to make sure they were on St. Nicholas’ “good kid” list.
My dad celebrated St. Nicholas’ Day growing up, with Sinterklaas and his evil sidekick, Zwarte Piet, making the rounds on the night of December 5th. One thing I didn’t know from this (as it was never really explained), is that Zwarte Piet is traditionally portrayed in blackface, as Piet is intended to be a Moor from Spain. Is it culturally insensitive? You bet! Luckily, the blackface aspect is dying off in The Netherlands, albeit very slowly.
The Krampus never made his way to my household as a kid. I only discovered him via my German classes in high school and college. Over the past decade or so, Krampus has developed a growing following here in the States, with Krampusnacht celebrations popping up all over the place (typically on a Friday or Saturday night to allow for a lot of drinking, as these celebrations typically center around a pub crawl).
In our household, sprite and I typically get a visit from Saint Nick and enjoy the sweet treats he leaves in our shoes (luckily for us, he tends to favor some of the less funky footwear in the house). And Krampus? He only really appears on a t-shirt in my holiday wardrobe.
This post is part of spritewrites’ Virtual Advent Tour.