Maybe you are late getting the message: You’d better be good, for goodness sake. Or if you live in certain regions of Germany and Austria, my friend, you’d better be good, for badness and brimstone’s sake. A reckoning is coming and coming quickly. Today is the eve of Nikolaustag– St. Nicolas Day, aka Boot Night. Children put out boots and St. Nick fills them with candy. Unless, *sigh*, well, there’s no easy way to tell this . . .
Salvation by chocolate is not a sure thing in middle Europe.
Judgment is real and is more gruesome than a lump of coal.
On Nikolaustag or its eve, St. Nick is accompanied by his Shadow– his ominous, treacherous, hideous shadow. The Shadow offers not candy and kindness but switches, ashes, and a little roughing up. Or, possibly, if you are really bad (you know who you are), you’ll be stuffed in a sack and carried off to the netherworld . . . in one piece or many, it makes no difference to this guy.
I kid you not.
The exact form of this shadow is dependent on the region of Germany– Schwarz Peter, Knecht Ruprecht, or Krampus are all grotesque and the stuff of nightmares, but, for my money, Krampus is the most horrible. Of the many things Bavaria and its neighboring corner of Austria do right–and there are so many– Krampus is not one. He is, literally, a beastly demon. But don’t take my word for it, let Anthony Bourdain bring you up to speed:
Those of you who live in Germany or have followed my blog in 2014 and 2015 have more than a little knowledge of this Christmas tradition, so I won’t be long winded here. (But you can revisit those old blog posts and get up to speed at these links: St. Nick and Belsnickel, and Saints and Demons)
If you have been nice this year, or even reasonably nice this year (I don’t know about you all, but the bar is set pretty low in my house), then you will probably make it out of this holiday alive. You may even get a bootful of candy!
I did have a friend whose slightly naughty younger brother once got only a bra in his boot– and, to clarify, this was not taken as encouragement to be naughty, but meant to humiliate him into being better next year. Oh, that crazy German sense of humor!
We’re Stateside this year, but we are still celebrating Boot Night. Wish us luck with that– I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our friend St. Nick lately.
About his many incarnations; about his naughty and nice list; about the fact that some of his incarnations belong on naughty lists themselves; and about the actual man that inspired this mythical being with modern day rock star status. Really . . . just what kind of mortal could inspire so many, and such enduring, legends?
Who was Saint Nick? Nikolaus* of Myra (present day Turkey) was a Greek bishop during the 4th century. Many miracles are attributed to him, but his most enduring legacy is probably his generosity. As legend has it, he sought to relieve poverty through the giving of secret gifts. Most notably, there is a story that he sought to ease the plight of three young girls. Their father could not afford to pay a dowry, so they were doomed to a life of poverty and, quite probably, prostitution in order to survive. Nikolaus secretly tossed three purses of gold coins through the window of their home (this, obviously, before his chimney shenanigans in later centuries). One version even posits extra detail–some of the gold fell into a stocking that was hanging up to dry in the house.
It is a long and winding road from the life of the actual man to the variety of legends that we find today–and it is a great variety–but they all contain the kernel of his truth. There’s not much I can add to that truth–I’m no scholar on saints or on Nikolaus. I can, however, tell you that he is still remembered in Turkey as a great man. He is also embraced, to some small extent, in his modern Western guise–albeit largely for profit and the selling of kilims. There is a town in the eastern Mediterranean region of Turkey (I wish I could remember the name, but it’s been 16 years since I was there!) where we watched women weaving Santa Kilims. We bought a number of them, for ourselves and for our family. We still hang ours proudly each Christmas season. . . but we spray it with Lysol each year. (Sorry Santa, but I think you were woven with some raw wool, and you do carry a distinct old world smell that requires a little airing out. I don’t really mind–the way I see it, you bring a little of the Bethlehem stable into my house with you, and that keeps me focused for the season.)
About that variety of legends–I don’t think that we feel it much in the States. Our Santa is a homogenous and modern being–jolly and round, always in the same red and white costume, and, yes, generous to a fault (is there such a thing?). The menace of his judgment (his naughty and nice list) seems hardly menace at all–unless you’ve been outrageously naughty. It happens. Still, with late season penance, it all turns out well. Seems straight forward.
But it seems less simple in Middle Europe. Here, the judgment is real and the punishers are frightening. Easy salvation? That’s for American weenies. Here, you’d best practice good German diligence and industriousness, and even then the day will come when you have to stare down a devil for your Nikolaustag (St. Nikolaus Day) chocolate. Yes, a devil. Where goes Nikolaus, so goes his dark counterpart (with many faces and names, depending on the region of Europe). Good and evil, naughty and nice–they take it seriously in Germany.
I won’t go into great detail here about St. Nick’s draconian counterparts, as I’ve written a lot about them in the post Saints and Devils, Fire and Snow . However, I will add a few insights from a conversation I had recently with a Bavarian woman. I met her on December 5th– Nikolaustag Eve (“boot night” in Germany, when children put out boots for Nikolaus to leave candy in . . . but sometimes get visits from the grim sidekick instead or get ashes and coal if they have been bad). She told me
that the children around Rothenburg ob der Tauber have traditionally not celebrated on December 6th, but rather on November 11th. When she was young, that was when Belsnickel (or Pelsnickel) would visit. Belsnickel was a fur-cloaked character, rather scruffy, who seemed to combine both the surly (Krampus, Ruprecht, etc) and the kind (Nikolaus) into one being. He carried a sack with both treats and switches. Belsnickel might judge the children and either punish or reward them; he might toss candy around the floor for them, and then paddle their backs with twigs as they scrambled for the candy; or he might be more elfin and be more mischief prone than malice prone. He might be a lot of things, said my new friend; however, when November 11th came around the children were really quite scared of what would come for them.
I asked this woman, once more, “And he came on November 11th?” “Yes,” came the answer. That seemed so early in the season to me. I looked the date up later and found that November 11th is not only Belsnickel, it’s also Martinstag– that’s Reformation Day, a celebration of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Ah, yes, this was beginning to make more sense to me. If you are celebrating the Reformation, why not scare the pants off of the children, and then reward them with goodies? Spare the rods, spoil the souls of the children. So very German, this Christmas cocktail: hell fire and brimstone, followed by a chaser of sweets and gingerbread.
Never a dull moment with these old European traditions. Is it awful that Christmas time boasts its own terrors and devils? Is it harsh? Absolutely. . .but, then again, it has some appeal.
I could do without Krampus devils giving my kids nightmares, but I do start to think that the American Santa is a bit fluffy. I don’t mind him being “the love-meister,” if that’s really his focus, but when it’s all about giving out the stuff, and then more stuff– well, the guy needs to stand up for his principles. Let’s get back to the core of the man: not necessarily a tale of saints and devils who come for your children, but at least the tale of the saint.
Be jolly–yes, please be jolly– but also please be Saint Nicholas.
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?
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: St. 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.
Yes, 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.
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!
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
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.
*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.