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: http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/ – which means Santa-Claus-Free Area)

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Meet a Saint at the Abbey in Schlierbach, Austria

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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: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/death-is-having-a-moment/280777/

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: http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/05/world/gallery/beauty-from-the-crypt/ ).

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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: http://www.stift-schlierbach.at/fileadmin/panoramatour/index.html

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Steeple of the church in Schlierbach