Most fans of Christmas are aware that our jolly gift-giving Santa Claus evolved from the real-life St. Nicholas, the generous and kindly 3rd/4th century bishop who became the patron saint of children, sailors, the wrongly accused, and eventually pretty much everyone else and their mothers, such was his pervasive popularity. St. Nicholas remains the primary Christmastide visitor throughout much of Europe, but he often travels with companions, and in the Alpine regions, those companions include the Krampus.

Birth of St. Nicholas by Alexander Boguslawski

Birth of St. Nicholas (by Alexander Boguslawski)

The person who would become St. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the Greek, Christian town of Patara in what is now Turkey. Immediately after birth his jubilant, previously childless, older parents placed the boy in a tub for his first bath. According to legend, Nicholas stood right up and greeted them in the name of the Lord. As the pious and generous youngster grew into adolescence he began clandestinely distributing the fortune left to him by his now departed parents to the needy and unfortunate. Most famously he aided the Three Dowerless Daughters. A neighbor of Nicholas with three bombshell daughters of marrying age suddenly lost his fortune to pirates and his three daughters were left without dowries. Hearing of their plight, three times Nicholas, under cover of darkness, dropped a bag of gold through an open window into the home of the father and his daughters, providing each with a fat dowry. Incidentally, the third bag of gold landed in a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

St. Nicholas giving dowry gold (courtesy Elisabeth Ivanovsky)

St. Nicholas giving dowry gold
(by Elisabeth Ivanovsky)

Soon after, Nicholas left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The ship on which he sailed across the Mediterranean encountered a fearsome storm and a sailor high up on the swaying mast plummeted to his messy death on the deck far below. Nicholas prayed for the sailor to be brought back to life and he was, good as new. The young man Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra — the Boy Bishop — and soon thereafter Roman emperor Galerius decided that Christians should be prosecuted. Nicholas endured torture and deprivation for eight years until the pogrom finally ended and he was released. Many additional miracles ensued, and when Nicholas died on December 6 , 343, he was buried in his home church in Myra. Soon thereafter his tomb began to exude sweet-smelling water of great purity, called manna, which was believed to have healing powers. After his remains were “translated” to Bari, Italy in 1087 in order to get him away from the Muslims, the manna continued unabated and continues to this day.

Santa Claus St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas to Santa Claus (courtesy St. Nicholas Center)

By the 19th century, Santa Claus was splitting off from St. Nicholas in America into his own identity as a red-suited, North Pole-dwelling, reindeer-drawn sled riding, elf-consorting, Christmas Eve gift-delivering figure. But in Europe, St. Nicholas remained the primary Christmas season gift-giver, an overtly Christian cleric who visited on his own official holiday, St. Nicholas Day, December 6, judged the behavior of children and rewarded them accordingly. From the parental viewpoint, this judgmental aspect of the season has always been a crucial tool in keeping kids in line. Historically, the “stick” part of the stick-and-carrot approach (or “sugar-bread and whip” in German) was a lot more literal than we are generally comfortable with today. Even in much more corporal times, it felt unseemly the have the kindly protector of children actually dole out physical punishment to the kiddies, so there evolved a “dark companion” tradition.

krampus la troupe

In the Alpine region, and in particular Austria, this “dark companion” became the Krampus, a demon-thing equipped with horns, fangs, claws, unruly fur, hooves, long creepy tongue; and wielding chains, whips, switches, and bells. Today, Krampuses are so popular that it seems St. Nicholas accompanies THEM. Tomorrow, St. Nicholas Day, troupes of unruly Krampuses across the Alpine region will spill forth onto city streets, villages, and even homes in parades and runs to terrorize and delight in the more-or-less traditional manner. We’ll take a look at those troupes tomorrow.

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