St. Nikolaus

St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Facebook: Austria Official Travel Info)

December is a busy month for traditions in Austria. Krampus Day on December 5 is followed by Nikolaus Day on December 6. It is the day of St. Nikolaus, and even though the American Santa Claus is modeled after him even in name, they two do not have much in common. St. Nikolaus does bring gifts for the good kids but in the evening of December 6. He was the Bishop of Myra, which is in present-day Turkey, in the fourth century. He is the patron saint for a lot of different groups ranging from students to pirates to prostitutes. I guess he is popular for so many groups to choose him. But the “job” as patron saint for children and students is the reason for the traditions associated with December 6. And because he was a bishop, he is dressed quite differently than Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus wears the robes of a bishop and with that comes a mitre and a pastoral staff. He is usually white-haired and has a long flowing beard but he is usually not chubby like Santa Claus. St. Nikolaus also does not use a flying sleigh with reindeer but walks or rides a horse or a “regular” sleigh. He also does not come through the chimney in the middle of the night, but politely knocks on the door.

St. Nikolaus usually is accompanied by Krampus, a demon-like beast to scare the naughty children (see yesterday’s post). Nikolaus usually asks the parents if the children have been good, and if the answer is yes, Krampus is asked to wait outside the door where he hollers and rattles his chains to warn children to behave all year. Once Krampus is banished, Nikolaus usually asks the children to recite a poem or sing a carol for him before he takes gifts out of his large bag. Since he is really carrying the bag and the gifts, the gifts are usually chocolate, apples, oranges, and possibly books or other small items. To remind children again that Krampus is always watching, a small bundle of birch twigs is included in the gift as well (see yesterday’s post about the birch twigs).

Postcard Showing St. Nikolaus and Krampus (found on Wikipedia Commons)

If the parents did not rent a Nikolaus to come to the house, children still receive gifts though. Little bags or shoes are left by the door and are filled with the gifts once it is evening. The few years when Nikolaus did not come to our house, my mom would ask us into the kitchen and close the door behind us. We would hear the rattling of chains outside the door and my father’s voice as he was supposedly addressing Krampus to tell him that only good kids were living here. My brother and I stood by the door and were straining to hear every word and hoping that Krampus would not be allowed into the kitchen. A few minutes later, we were allowed to leave the kitchen, and lo and behold, there were gifts in our boots!

Even though children receive small gifts on December 6, they will receive more gifts on Christmas, which is celebrated in the evening of December 24. But there is no confusion between St. Nikolaus and Santa Claus in case you are wondering because we do not have Santa Claus. Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind in Austria (literally: Christ Child), an angel.

St. Nikoalus Is Shown as the Original and Santa Claus as the Imitation (found on: – which means Santa-Claus-Free Area)

Is There a Right Way to Travel?

A Wayside Shrine in the Fields of Upper Austria

A Wayside Shrine in the Fields of Upper Austria

A friend emailed me a NY Times blog about the right way to travel since we have had a similar conversation several times: should a traveler try to see as many sights as possible as if dealing with a bucket list or should he/she go for less but more in depth experiences? Here is the blog: My friend and I both prefer the in-depth approach, but the topic comes up again and again when either one of us has visitors or when we travel with others whose travel style clashes with ours.

A Church Steeple in a Small Town in Upper Austria

A Church Steeple in a Small Town in Upper Austria

Anna Altman’s blog in the NY Times expressed what I value in travel – I look for a true cross-cultural experience instead of a check mark on a list of sights one is supposed to have seen. Many of the memories I have of a place are not connected to the famous sights themselves but to the small experiences: trying to figure out how to ride the bus in a country where I do not speak the language or can understand any postings, shopping in supermarkets where I do not recognize many of the ingredients, or eating in a restaurant where I can’t read the menu and depend on others to choose for me. These are the stories that I retell still years after the trip while the fancy photos of me in front of famous sights have long been gathering dust.

Entrance to a Hidden Courtyard in an Upper Austrian Town

Entrance to a Hidden Courtyard in an Upper Austrian Town

This is also the reason why so many tourists have seen some famous sights in Austria that I have never seen before even though I grew up there and have been back for many of the previous summers. And I am fine with that because instead of the typical sights, I know every little church in every village I have ever been to and I can tell you about the best place to get a beer and conversation in any of the towns I have been to.

Meet a Saint at the Abbey in Schlierbach, Austria


St. Julianus in the abbey church in Schlierbach

The visit to the Abbey in Schlierbach and the bones of Saint Julianus reminded me of an article about death that my students had to read for a response essay. The article was called “Death Is Having a Moment” and discussed the emergence of Death Salons around the Western World – see link to article:

The article mentioned a talk about bejeweled skeletons, especially popular in Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss cultures it seems. A topic that was not surprising to me really shocked some students; most could not imagine what such a bejeweled skeleton could look like. A search online for jeweled skeletons provided images, plenty of examples of splendid pieces of art decorating the bones of mostly saints (for example, see this article with detailed pictures of skeletons: ).

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Interior of the abbey in Schlierbach

I did not expect to see a skeleton/saint in Schlierbach; it was not advertised in any way I noticed. But there he was, right up front but to the side of the main altar, not as bejeweled as some of the more spectacular examples online, but still impressive. None of the Austrians visiting the church with me paid much attention to the saint. It made me wonder whether Austrians are more open to discuss death and accept death as a natural part of life and culture as indicated by the article.

For an excellent online media tour of the abbey, go to:

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Steeple of the church in Schlierbach

Not Just Baroque: Gothic Style in Austrian Churches

Gampern close up

The winged altar in Gampern, which is the third largest of its kind in Upper Austria. The church and altar are in late Gothic style from 1497-1507.

Even though Baroque seems to dominate the churches in Upper Austria, I also noticed many other styles and examples. Some churches are still in the Gothic style, as for example the church in Gampern (built 1497-1507). Other churches break with old traditions and decorations and present a modern interior, such as the pilgrimage church Maria Schmolln with its altar from 1992/1993. The church itself is much older (from around 1880) and used to be decorated in a more traditional style:

Maria Schmolln Altar

The new altar from 1992/1993 in Maria Schmolln.

Maria Schmooln2

The original picture of Mary that started the pilgrimages in Maria Schmolln.














The newer style is a change after all the Baroque and Gothic interiors I have seen but does not make the same strong impression.



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View of the church in Gampern.

Austrian Churches: More Baroque, Please!


Ceiling of the Pilgrimage Church Stadl-Paura, a Baroque church built in the early !8th century since the town was spared the Plague

I’ve realized again on this visit that if you are not sure what sights exist in a town or if there is anything worthwhile visiting, you can always count on churches: even the smallest village seems to have one and I have never seen a church yet that was not rather amazing inside. Another advantage is that the church is also easy to find – easier than most other sights: it is in the center of town/village and/or on a hill with the best view, and if everything else fails, just follow the church steeple. It is usually the first sign that any type of residential area is nearby.

In Upper Austria, Baroque seems to dominate the interiors. Even churches that were built long before the time of Baroque often were retrofitted/redecorated to fit the new Baroque taste. Baroque is not everyone’s taste admittedly, but I am fascinated by the amount of details and gold; it seems that the architects thought “What else can we include? Where is another open square inch for a little cherub or a carved ‘curl’ in the pattern?” I can always discover something new no matter how long I am in the church.

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Interior of the Abbey by Lambach, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1040 and remodeled in the Baroque style in the 17th and 18th centuries



Another detail of the interior of the Abbey In Lambach

I grew up with Baroque churches; deep down it was engrained in me by visiting just those types of churches that a “real” church needs to look ready to burst with decorations. I “blame” the experience with Baroque style for my decorating style at home – yes, more is better. What others might see as clutter and too much of ____, I see as normal. My adversity towards sparse spaces might have nothing to do with growing up around Baroque churches, but it is as good a cause as any.


Interior of the Abbey in Schlierbach, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1355 and rebuilt in the Baroque style 1672-1712



Outside of the Abbey in Kremsmuenster, a Benedictine monastery founded in 777; the church was completed in 1277 and 1680-1720 remodeled in the Baroque style.


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The Interior of the Abbey in Kremsmuenster