Saints and Devils, Fire and Snow


st nick kramp cookie cut jazzup

You need only scratch the surface of modern Europe to see the pulsing of its medieval veins.  This can be a little unnerving, but it’s also deeply gratifying in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Take Christmas traditions as an example.  In America, we embrace a jovial, generous Santa Claus (who, for all of his good character points, does seem to team up with Coca Cola, Hollywood, and the rest of the commercial establishment a little too often for comfort).  He surrounds himself with other agreeable characters– Rudolph and Frosty–and they have a jolly time.  Sure, adversity must be overcome, but their stories never really cross to the dark side.

Would you like a little saccharin with that sweet?

krampus st nick victorian postcard
Looks like St. Nick brought his scary friend. (Krampus and St. Nick on a vintage postcard)

Not so in Germany and Austria.  Oh, they’ll serve you sweets at each turn this time of year, but you’re never quite sure what they are fattening you up for.  You might cheer your good fortune at stumbling upon a kind old lady in a gingerbread house!  You might anticipate a visit from St. Nicholas on December 6th (Nikolaustag) with unbridled joy!   But wait.  What if the good fortune is not what it appears?

Because sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes, you walk into a Salzburg sweet store in late November to see this: 2_Milka_Nikolo_16Bg_dd.inddSt. Nicholas in all of his chocolatey goodness.

But the next thing your eyes fall upon is this:


Holy camole!  What’s that all about?   Well, simply put, you are in the Old World now, the land of the Brothers Grimm, where every light casts a shadow.

candle pyramidYes, there’s always a dark underbelly in Germany.  For each saint, there’s a devil; for each sweet, there’s a reckoning; for each life, there’s a death.  Each candle-strewn Christmas pyramid holds back the dark of a frozen winter, and each yin has its yang.

Many unlucky children have found themselves, not on Santa’s lap, but staring down a devil named Krampus. (You just met his likeness in foil-covered chocolate, above.)   A demon who, at best, humiliated children with twigs instead of candy at Christmas. At worse, beat them heartily with those switches.  And at worst, dragged them down to Hell.  (Well, they had been naughty, you know.)

This is stern stuff.  A little shocking to those of us raised on Miracle on 34th Street or T’was the Night Before Christmas.  Well, my friends . . .welcome to Middle Europe, where St. Nick is often accompanied by a sinister sidekick: Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Schwarz Peter.   Krampus is horned and devilish, Knecht Ruprecht and Schwarz Peter are more recognizably human, but sooty, uninviting, and coal and switch-laden.     (Whether this surly sidekick is malevolent or simply mischievous is entirely dependent upon whose hands he is in. . . or possibly on how naughty the child has been.)

Our first run in with Krampus was in that sweets store in Salzburg, but last weekend we ran into him again–this time at the Christkindlmarkt at Bernkastel-Kues.  His boat was parked among the market stalls.

St. Niklaus and Knecht Ruprecht--sit between them.  Were you naughty or nice this year?
St. Niklaus and Knecht Ruprecht–sit between them. Were you naughty or nice this year?

I’m not sure what the boat motif is all about.  We were on the Mosel River…but my sister has (rightly) suggested that this looks more like something from the River Styx, where the ferryman will guide you to the afterlife…right after St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht decide your fate!!  Oh, and Merry Christmas!

December 2008 at The Black Sheep Brewery, N. Yorkshire, England
December 2008 at The Black Sheep Brewery, N. Yorkshire, England

We laughed about this, but for those of us   who remember Santa as all love and no menace, this is jarring.   Our “Christmas judgment” was always at the hands of this guy:

He was rumpled and happy, and he smelled of candy canes.  If we got tongue tied, it was only because we were overcome by his largess.   It was never because we feared for our very souls.

Honestly, if I had found myself, at age six, sitting between St. Nicholas in his starchy Pope’s hat and some vaguely human entity who looked like this

Is that a sack of coal?
Is that a sack of coal?

swarthy vagrant. . . well. . .


Hmmmm. . . I don’t know how that would have worked out.  I certainly wouldn’t have produced a long list of “things I’d like for Christmas, because I want them, or I need them, or I saw them in the Sears Wish Book, or the Saturday morning commercial looked awesome, or Sarah’s best friend Suzy has one and I want one too!”

And so, it occurs to me that all German and Austrian children must be really, really, very, very good at Christmas time.  And very undemanding.

And very scared.

Good thing they get to stave off the dark and deadly cold of the season by going home and lighting candles on those   popular German Christmas pyramids and candle arches, and by hanging glowing Moravian stars all over the house.  You certainly need all the light you can get when Krampus is skulking around outside in the dark streets.

It’s the German way–an austere world view, gilded around the edges with gingerbread and chocolates.   The devil will always lurk in the shadow of the saint; the dark and cold will always stand sentry at the edge of the firelight. . .but if you are well behaved and diligent, you may just hold the dark at bay for a while.

So, I’ll leave you with a holiday toast: eat, drink, and be merry. . .for tomorrow, you may meet Krampus.

candle arch (2)


*Check out the video A Krampus Carol by Anthony Bourdain on Youtube, if you want a slightly disturbing holiday laugh.  And, yes, the girl does appear to get carried “to Hell in a handbasket.”  Nothing says Merry Christmas like that!


Lucky me--the dark and cold outside my window this morning was more picturesque than menacing.
Lucky me–the dark and cold outside my window this morning was more picturesque than menacing.


 *One, final, note: this dynamic duo of St. Nick and Krampus seems to own the holiday of Nikolaustag (Nikolaus Day and Eve, December 5th and 6th).  After that, Weihnachtsman, Kris Kringle, Santa, the Christ child (Christkind), or some other regional “santa” takes center stage for Christmas.  I can’t say that I understand these myriad traditions yet…but maybe I can shed more light on this by next Christmas.




Gemutlichkeit and Thanksgiving

I don’t have the easiest relationship with the German language, but here is a word I love:  “Gemutlichkeit.”   It means coziness–friends, family, good food, the perfect atmosphere.  Cozy.  Is there anything better?

I wish you a lovely Thanksgiving holiday–whether or not you are American and given to celebrating with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie tomorrow.   I wish you a cozy day to dwell on all you are thankful for.

I am thankful for a year that has brought excitement and un-ease all at the same time.  We’ve had a crazy rollercoaster ride with our move, and, while I tend to share the fun bits of our days in Germany, it’s still a struggle many days.  Last week was a doozy.  Monday night, one child was up late into the night having a meltdown–because that’s just what kids do sometimes.  The next night the other child was up until the wee hours, dreadfully homesick for the States.  After that, it didn’t take long for me to be bawling my eyes out–from exhaustion coupled with a dose of homesickness (who knew it was contagious?).   And by Thursday,  both kids came home early from school with a stomach bug.

No worries–they were happy and well by Friday.  But by that point, our dog had thrown her back out.

Today our dog is better, but another family member, in the States, is prepping for surgery.

We all have worries.  Every road is a bumpy road that’s worth travelling. I really believe that.  Some of the potholes I could certainly do without . . . but the views from the roughhewn paths are something special.

In the midst of the rough week, a friend invited us to his Jewish temple for a service and an early Thanksgiving meal with other Americans.  My husband and I dragged our tired, Protestant selves there–happy to be there, but exhausted nonetheless.  And it was such a beautiful night.  A soulful, but uptempo note in a downtempo week.   Suddenly the caucophany that had plagued us began to sound like a symphony.

And so, I am thankful.  For the fun and the difficult times, for the uptempo and downtempo.  For the opportunity to bawl my eyes out because the people I love are hurting or because the people I love are far away.  Because the people I love… that’s enough.  And, of course, I am thankful for the fun.  Bring on the fun and mischief!  (The people I love would want me to enjoy that, after all.)

Also, I should tell you that once I stopped feeling hysterical about this week, I began feeling a little historical.  I began thinking about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, and, of course, the funny hats with belt buckles.  But mostly about the Pilgrims.  They weren’t the first English to plant a colony in the “New World.”  There was the Lost Colony at Roanoke first, and then the very successful colony at Jamestown.  And, anyhoo, these pilgrims on the Mayflower weren’t just religious pilgrims.  Some of the folk who took passage on the ship were, essentially, businessmen.  (Nathaniel Philbreck’s book Mayflower is a brilliant recounting of the history, if you want to brush up.)  The story isn’t a simple tale, nor is it a tale only  of success.

These pilgrims suffered huge losses before that first Thanksgiving, and trying times after, too.  I’m sure they were homesick and exhausted.  I’m sure they had bad nights and puffy-eyed mornings. . . and no food. . . and fleas.  No doubt, they would have felt singularly blessed if their loved ones had qualified doctors and surgeons to care for them!  But they didn’t.  Still, they set aside time for thanks and a harvest festival.  And it lasted for days.

And so Time sneezed, and here we are in 2014.  The stories are different. . .but not so different.

Winter is coming, and we celebrate the final harvest festivals, and we remember to be thankful.  Gemutlichkeit–coziness and happiness and gratitude.   Let’s wrap it around ourselves like a cloak to stave off the winter.

Some of the people I love, celebrating their thankful, happy hearts.  Ireland 2008.
Some of the people I love, celebrating their thankful, happy hearts. Ireland 2008.