Who’s That With Old St. Nick?

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Krampus in Austria

“Up on the rooftop reindeer pause, out jumps good old Santa Claus”, but who is that crazy character that came with him? In many parts of the world children have a very different vision in their head, when Santa Claus comes to town.

Santa Claus is a tradition celebrated here in the United States, while many other countries observe St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop, whose generosity of giving worked its way into the traditions that are celebrated today.  There has definitely been a blending of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas but they are very different, indeed.  In Western Europe, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th.   Often, St. Nicholas has a counterpart, who is the bad to his good, the yin to his yang.  You better watch out when St. Nick and his associate visit, especially if you were less than nice this year. Many of these traditions date back to the middle ages where there were strong themes of good versus evil.

Krampus
Krampus

These not so friendly acquaintances can be quite creepy. In Austria, for instance, there is a horned, hairy creature called Krampus, who takes the kids on the naughty list to its hellish liar. If you made the good list, which hopefully you did, then St. Nick will leave you fruits, nuts and sweets.

In the Netherlands, there is Sinterklaas (said to be part of where our version of Santa Claus came from) and his counterpart Zwarte Piet (translates into Black Peter, and political correctness is a definite issue with this, although the black is soot from going down chimneys, not the color of his skin) who will drag you off in a bag and teach you to be good, if you didn’t make the nice list.

In parts of France, there is the very scary Père Fouettard, a horrible child killer who is making up for his sins by eternally being St. Nicholas’s helper, not sure he will ever make that up for that though! Those that have been naughty should expect a whipping from this boogieman instead of any treats.

The Czech Republic has a tradition where Saint Nicholas comes with an angel to protect the children from the devil, who also comes, but is chained up; showing once again that good does overcome evil. Here the naughty ones get a lump of coal or a sack of potatoes and the real naughty ones get put into the devils sack and taken to hell, if that doesn’t make you want to be on the nice list, I am not sure what else will.

In parts of Germany, St. Nick travels with Knecht Ruprecht.  There are various traditions throughout Germany but they usually go something like this- Knecht Ruprecht carries a bag of ashes and a basket containing switches (branches used for whipping). He will ask children if they know how to pray, if yes, St. Nicholas gives them treats, often fruit, nuts, chocolates or gingerbread. If not, then Knecht Ruprecht beats the children with his bag of ashes. They are given coal and a switch is left for the parents to discipline them with.

So if you decide to be naughty, take caution, you are dealing with the forces of St. Nicholas, and his acquaintances don’t mess around. My advice, be good and have a wonderful holiday season whatever your beliefs are!

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Annual Christmas Holiday Traditions in Austria with Krampus

We first noticed this devil like creature when we were in Vienna.  Next to all the Christmas decorations was this strange little fella with horns, and I thought to myself that I needed to check into what this creature might be.  Maybe it was left over from Halloween, but realized Halloween is not a big holiday here, as of yet, although it is gaining in popularity.  I never had a chance to look into it while we were in Vienna. So when we arrived in Salzburg, and our lovely hosts at the apartment where we were staying, suggested that we go to a festival featuring this creature in a neighboring village the next evening, we jumped at the chance.  Take a look at what we found…

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Krampus! They were quite a spectacle!  I have never seen anything like it.  The tradition goes something like this.  On December 6th, St. Nicholas (who is similar to Santa Claus) and Krampus come for a visit.  Children are left apples, nuts and sweets if they are good and are dragged away by Krampus to his hellish lair if they are not.  So you better be good!

There are many festivals and parades called Krampuslauf, leading up to Krampusnacht, celebrated on December 6th.  They usually begin at night fall and large groups, mostly young men, dress in their incredible costumes and prance down the street, stealing hats and scaring people along the way.  We found ourselves at the Koppler Krampuslauf, on a snowy cold night.  It was a perfect time to enjoy some delicious hot punch and the girls had the kinder punch (non-alcoholic) to keep them warm.  Once the parade started we were close to the action, as it went on we moved back a little, my youngest daughter got a little scared of these beasts.  She knew it was all in fun, but their costumes and actions can be pretty scary! They were amazing! To learn about and be a part of this tradition dating back to the middle ages and earlier, was an incredible treat!

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Good Stuff

Sadly, it is our last day in Salzburg. Our lovely host arranged for us to go out into the forest where we were able to watch a deer feeding.  We saw approximately 150 deer.  They are fed everyday once food becomes scarce, usually starting around December 1st.  The hunters set out food as they are required to help take care of the deer during the winter, seems only fair…  We hiked out through the snow to a viewing platform, where you sit quietly, as the deer come down the hillside to feed.  Thankfully, we were given blankets to help keep us warm, since the cold took our breath away, we are not quite use to it.

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Afterwards, we drove through the lake region, which again took our breath away, it was so beautiful.  We then stopped and walked through our last Austrian Christmas Market.  It was magical with lights, carolers and all the festivities.  We are truly going to miss Austria, we have really loved being here!

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Vienna

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Austria is amazing! It has certainly left an impression on me. Currently, we are in lovely Salzburg. It is dumping snow outside and so the girls are out running around with their dad, perfect time to blog. Fresh snow falling is definitely something we do not have many chances to see, living in Southern California, so everyone has been squealing with excitement! It is a winter wonderland!

Anyway, back to Vienna. What a beautiful city Vienna is! There is a style and grace to the city that reminded me of Paris. I am so glad we made Vienna a stop on our European tour.

On our first full day in Vienna, we surprised the girls with a performance by the Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzaner stallions. The riding school began over 430 years ago and is very much a cultural tradition in Vienna. The Spanish Riding School’s name comes from the Lipizzaner horses, which originated from the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal. There were several different events showing classical horsemanship culminating with a beautiful “ballet” of 8 white horses. It was fascinating to see these incredibly trained horses jumping and prancing to the music, like nothing I have seen before. The girls were very excited! The beautiful space where the performance was held was completed in 1735 and is part of the Hofburg Palace.

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One of our favorite ways to relax and observe the Viennese culture was to sit in the wonderful cafes and enjoy the incredible coffee and sweets. I have to say these are the original coffee houses and put Starbucks to shame. One sweet you can indulge on is the Sachertorte, who has the best Sachertorte in the city is a big debate. The Sachertorte is a a soft and fluffy chocolate cake with apricot jam. The one we tried was pretty dry but I am willing to try it again, if I must. My daughters have become hot chocolate connoisseurs and my husband is on a quest to try every type of beer that is humanly possible.

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After relaxing in a cafe we enjoyed viewing Gustav Klimt’s work at the Belvedere Palace which was the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. There are actually two Baroque-style palaces separated by a formal garden. Gustav Klimt’s work is in the upper palace with a collection of work by other Austrian painters. I was really taken by Klimt’s work, with his use of mixed media and different artistic styles it was incredible. The whole city of Vienna seems to be taken by his work too as he is a huge part of the culture of the city.

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We also were able to see an opera and a ballet at the gorgeous State Opera House or the Staatsoper. Having heard about the possibility of having standing room seats for 3-4 euros each, from a Rick Steve’s podcast, we decided what a great way to go. Not being an opera fan and wanting to just give a little exposure to our girls, you cannot beat it. We figured we could just stay until intermission and not feel bad for leaving. It is an interesting process getting the standing room seats, so if you can handle that, it is a wonderful deal. Some people line up three hours before the tickets go on sale to be the first in line. You can also arrive when the tickets do go on sale, 80 minutes before showtime. We opted for the latter and with the kids we were lucky enough to get in the front row. There can be a lot of pushing and shoving for position. We even saw people running in to get a good spot, it reminded me of a rock concert, not an opera… The 4 euro standing room area is just behind seats costing up to 150 euros, and are on the ground floor with a great view. The amazing thing was though, that we stayed for the entire performance of both the opera and the ballet. The girls loved it! I think it helped that the opera was L’elisir d’armore (The Elixir of Love) which is not so serious nor tragic. The ballet was interesting also. I think we have a whole new appreciation for the arts. I really love how Vienna makes the arts accessible to everyone in the community, not just those with big bank accounts.

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Traveling in the winter has allowed us to see how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday. One of these very special traditions, are the Christmas Markets, and Vienna has some of the best. They are quite a spectacle. Christmas Markets are called Christkindlmarkt or Adventmarkt and have been a part of the Christmas tradition since the Middle Ages in German speaking countries. They are open air markets filled with seasonal goods and food. We found different markets all over the city. You can find Christmas decorations, ornaments, nutcrackers, gingerbread cookies, and handmade crafts, just to begin with. There are food vendors serving different types of wurst, potato patties and roasted chestnuts. You can also try the hot wine (Gluhwein) hot punch (Punsch), and for the kids a warm punch (Kinder Punsch). Delicious on a cold day!

We truly enjoyed our week in Vienna. It is an incredible city! I will never forget our special time there and can’t wait to go back!

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