My memories of St. Nicholas and his scary companions go back to my early childhood. Days or even weeks before, I morphed in the best behaved child ever. Help Mummy nicely, don’t argue with your brother… the list was long. Then he’s sure to praise me, good ‘ole Nicholas, I thought. Has surely got a little sack for me and his beautiful angels will smile at me in a friendly way. And the evil “Krampus” will have to stay outside.
That’s more of less what my thoughts were as a child as the 6th of December, St. Nicholas day approached. In Pongau and Pinzgau, and in other districts of Salzburg, the tradition of St. Nicholas is deeply rooted. Let me tell you all about it.
Traditionally speaking various “passes“ are out and about on the 5th and 6th of December. A “pass” consists of St. Nicholas, his basket-carrier and scary figures, the Krampus. They go from house to house and visit the inhabitants. In many resorts they are also accompanied by two ladies clothed in white, the angels.
According to tradition the Krampus drive the evil spirits out of the houses with their bells and their roaring and afterwards St. Nicholas blesses the house, so the inhabitants are spared harm and illness. On the day Nicholas comes, the family gets together around the kitchen table. The children’s eyes gleam in anticipation and expectation of what St. Nicholas is going to say this year. Meanwhile the Krampus wait quietly behind St. Nicholas, so that their bells don’t drown out the saint’s words of praise. Afterwards there’s always a tasty little sack filled with nuts, mandarins and a chocolate from St. Nicholas. The adults sometimes get to feel the Krampus‘ birch rod, if they haven’t been as good as the children in the past year.
St. Nicholas wears a red, violet or gold robe and a bishop’s mitre on his head. A white beard and a long stick with a cross on the top end are also part of his outfit. The basket carrier is his old companion, who heralds the arrival of St. Nicholas in each house and brings presents for the children in his huge, wooden basket. The Krampus wear elaborately carved wooden masks made of swiss pine wood. Traditionally goats horns are mounted on top of the masks.
Wolfgang Gangl from St. Johann is one of the most well-known mask carvers in Salzburgerland. In 1970 he carved his first Krampus mask from wood. He says that the crafting process has hardly changed in the last 40 years. You begin with a large piece of wood, which is then roughly formed using a motor saw. During the second stage the wooden block is placed in the vice of a joiner’s bench. Then the fine carving takes place and to finish off the mask is painted to bring the scary evil mask to “life”. In the meantime Wolfgang’s sons, Philipp and Wolfgang jnr. have taken over the business. Philipp Gangl says: “Even as a child I was completely fascinated with my Dad’s work. He taught us his craftsmanship step by step and today we carry on the business with commitment and pleasure.“ Whilst talking to Philipp and his father I’ve learned that carving masks is not only restricted to the Krampus period, but they are busy the whole year round. As I stepped into their workshop, I was fascinated by the various elaborately carved masks hanging all around on the walls. And, they tell me, their masks are not only in Austria, but all over the world. For example they have already sold and sent Krampus masks to Australia, Nepal and even Tibet.
For many years now it’s been tradition that the various Krampus passes meet up after the house visits for a Krampus run. In St. Johann one of the largest Krampus runs takes place on 6th December in Obermarkt. Here up to 1.000 Krampus and St. Nicholases meet up to present their artistic masks and to scare the spectators. The Krampus run is a fixture for children, families and enthusiasts of traditional customs during the Advent period.
The anticipation during the Krampus period has remained the same since my childhood. For the past few years now I’ve been out and about with my pass as an “angel” and the best thing during this time is seeing the children’s eyes light up as they sit behind the table and St. Nicholas enters the house.
Photo credits: Stefanie Mayr, TVB St. Johann, Gerhard Mayerhofer Photography