SOUTH TYROLEAN KRAMPUS AND NIKOLAUS – SAINT NICHOLAS OF MYRA, OF BARI, OF MANHATTAN AND LANCASTER, PENSYLVANIA

South Tyrolean Branzoll

Once every winter, several townships and villages in South Tyrol celebrate the ancient winter tradition of Nikolaus and Krampus. The celebration predates the Council of Trento (1545-1563) and probably the very early Crusades when, after 1095 A.D., Christians and Muslims fought over the Holy Land and the Spice Trade. Several Crusades were then blessed by Christian Popes and Bishops before Muslims and Christians came to an agreement over Jerusalem with the famous Egyptian Sultan Saladin. 

Urban II and his Christian Crusaders (1088 – 1099)

Muslim Sultan Saladin (1137 -1197)

And thus, as history and legends unfolded, for a thousand years while still shaping cultural traditions of today, in the small town of Branzoll, in the autonomic Northern Italian region of South Tyrol, the ancient ugly Krampus, who traditionally has escorted Saint Nicholas for centuries, visits South Tiroleans to amuse, bemuse, or may be terrorize them while they watch him shaking chains and switches during a cold Alpine winter night.

A Parade with Branzoll’s Devils, also known as Krampus or Tuifl – December 2022

WHO IS ACTUALLY KRAMPUS?

Krampus, also known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter in Dutch), or Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert in German), Bellsnickler, Pelz Nikel, and or Krisskringle for American kids, originated way back in time, around those Crusades, when Muslim slave soldiers, fighting for Ottoman sultans, aimed to win over Christians, not only for the control of the spice trade but also to impose a new way to worship God. In time, Krampus became associated with all that Christians rejected in the name of the Holy Roman Church.

AND WHAT ABOUT SAINT NICHOLAS?

There are many versions of legends and stories around Saint Nicholas, later escorted by the evil European Krampus. One story reports of a Greek Orthodox bishop of Myra, Turkey, who helped the poor, blessed the knights who fought for the conquest of Jerusalem, gifted unmarried girls to allow them to have a suitable dearie, and who became in time a miracle worker, before his remains were moved from the Middle East, to Bari, Italy, around 808 A.D.

Move from Myra, Turkey to Bari, Italy

SAINT NICHOLAS ARRIVAL TO BARI, ITALY – SAN NICOLA DI BARI

And as the remains of Saint Nicholas, arrived in Italy around 1095, blessed by Pope Urban II, the important Cathedral of Bari and a gold decorated crypt were built to honor the famous Bishop. From there, knights, travelers, pilgrims and mariners, moved in and out, leaving for the Holy Land, or returning home, if they were lucky. The memory of good old Saint Nicholas moved around. Many of the Christian fighters travelled north, beyond the Alps, and many more moved east, throughout Ukraine and Russia, entrenching the cult of the saintly bishop among young and old.

A Greek Orthodox Bishop comes to town.

TODAY STILL, IN SOUTH TIROL AND BORDERING AUSTRIA, DER HEILIGE NIKOLAUS (SAINT NICHOLAUS)

During Pre Christmas season, in South Tirol and bordering Austria, der Heilige Nikolaus and ugly, scary, fury Krampus, make house calls. They carry baskets and bags filled with oranges, persimmons, apples, dried figs, Zelten, and ginger bread cookies. They seem to know who, among the little ones, has learned the multiplication table; who has shared with siblings and school friends; who has been naughty, and who has been good. How do they know?

Ask the parents… while Krampus, from behind a room’s door rattles his chains and beats his switches against the stables’ walls, you might be allowed to peek in the big Book… while outside beyond the warm Stube’s windows the cold wind blows… and the old wooden doors creeks and squeaks… while the silent and white snow has padded the surrounding fields where soon or later the Christkind will fly in, with angels, and larger and more important presents, you may bake Zelten and prepare for Christmas.

Waiting for Christkind with angels and larger presents.

RECIPE – TO MAKE A DARK SOUTH TIROLEAN ZELTEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Two are the Pre Christmas Zelten prepared throughout South Tirol and Tirolean Trentino. The dark Zelten, dating probably back to ancient times, when Celtic people used locally grown milled rye kneaded with pork fat, dried fruit and nuts, and the white more modern Zelten, dating back to a more recent time, when interregional and international trade and wealth allowed bakers to use more expensive and refined wheat flours, butter fat, yeast, and North Italian or Mediterranean grown fruits and nuts.

1 lb (453 gr) raisins, rinsed, 1 lb (453 gr) butter, 1 cup (200 gr) pitted and chopped dates, 1 cup (200 gr) dried, cored, chopped pears, 1 1/4 cups (250 gr) chopped walnuts, 1 cup (200 gr) pine nuts, 1/2 cup (100 gr) candied chopped lemon rind, 1/2 cup (100 gr) candied chopped orange rind, 1 pinch of salt, juice of 1 lemon (2 1/2 Tbsps), juice of 1 orange (2 1/2 Tbsps), 2 cups rum or brandy, 1 tsp powdered cinnamon, 1/2 tsp powdered cloves, 1 1/2 – 2 cups (250 gr) rye bread dough; enough candied whole pitted cherries and blanched whole almonds to decorate the Zelten.

Combine raisins, dates, pears, walnuts, pine nuts, lemon rind, orange rind, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and soak all ingredients in rum or brandy over night. If necessary, the next day, drain the moistened ingredients. Add, mix, and knead all ingredients into the rye bread dough. Make large or small loaves, or wheel or heart shaped Zelten. Brush the surface of the Zelten with sugar water or honey, decorate the fruit cake with the whole halved cherries and blanched almonds, and bake at 350 degrees F (about 180 C) for 40-45 minutes. Let the Zelten cool off before wrapping it in aluminum foil until it is ready for Christmas Eve. Serve with brandied Orange Punch.

HOW TO PREPARE A BRANDIED ORANGE PUNCH FOR CHRISTKINDL’S HELPERS

Use only organically grown oranges for this punch! Simmer the punch! Do not boil!!!

Serves 10

20 whole oranges, organically grown and not treated, 10 cubes of sugar, juice of 5 lemons (about 1 cup of juice), 10 whole cinnamon sticks (1 for each serving), 10 whole cloves (1 for each serving), 4 cups white wine, 3/4 cup rum or brandy or grappa, 2 cups hot water.

Using the sugar cubes, rub the orange peel off the organically grown oranges. Drop the sugar cubes in the white wine. Add the juice of the oranges and the juice of the lemons. Heat up and add to the liquid, the cinnamon sticks and the cloves. Simmer but do not boil! Stir making sure that the sugar cubes dissolve. Add the hot water and the rum. Before ladling out the punch, taste if the punch is sweet enough.

HOW AND WHEN DID “NIKOLAUS” AND UGLY “KRAMPUS” MOVE TO MANHATTAN AND LANCASTER, PENNSYLVANIA?

The earliest move to America by European Saint Nicholas occurred, in all likelihood, after the European Council of Trento (1545-1563) and after the European Reformation with Pilgrims and Protestant migrants moving into the New World. With the Dutch, the Zwarte Piet and Sinter Klaas (Saint Nicholaus) entered Manhattan, where legend has it, Dutch merchants bought the island of Manhattan from the local Natives in exchange of a few necklaces and trinkets.

Keeping up a cherished winter holiday tradition, which around 1798 German Protestants celebrated with a Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert) and a Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), Manhattan inhabitants not only kept the cherished Pre Christmas characters who had moved from Holland as Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas, but later founded also in honor of the saintly bishop, a Knickerbocker society described by Washington Irving in 1809.

With the move of those early Germanic and often Puritan settlers, new characters, similar to the South Tirolean and Austrian Heilige Nikolaus and Krampus, showed up throughout various regions of North America, including Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. By 1822, Clement Clark Moore wrote his famous poem and North American kids begun visiting places such as Lancaster’s Landis Museum to pick up their presents brought by a Bellsnickler, or a Pelznickel, or a Krisskringle.

American Bellsnickler, Pelznickel or Krisskringle?

A VISIT FROM SAINT NICHOLAUS BY CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE (RANDOM HOUSE PUBLICATIONS 1983)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there; The children were nestled all snug in their beds; While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, Gave a lustre of midday to objects below, When what to my wondering eyes did appear, But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer, With a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name: “Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!” As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky; So up to the housetop the coursers they flew With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too— And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof The prancing and pawing of each little hoof. As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack. His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow; The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath; He had a broad face and a little round belly That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself; A wink of his eye and a twist of his head Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread; He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk, And laying his finger aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose; He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

TO READ MORE ABOUT SANTA, SAINT NICHOLAS, KRAMPUS, KNECHT RUPRECHT, SWARTE PIET, SINTERKLASS, ST. NICK, BELLSNICKLER, PELZ NICKL, KRISSKRINGLE IN NORTH AMERICA:

Christmas Customs and Traditions by Clement A. Miles, published by Dover in 1976

Christmas in Pennsylvania – A Folk Cultural Study by Alfred L. Shoemaker with introduction by Don Yoder, published by the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, Kutztown, Pennsylvania, in 1959

The Cooking of Germany by Time Life Books with Nika Standen Hazelton and photographs by Ralph Crane, published by Time Life Books in 1969

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, published by Knopf in 1997.

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