Of all of the new holidays we’ve experienced since we came to Vienna, St. Nikolaus’ Day is the one we’ve adopted the most whole-heartedly. At school, St. Nikolaus’ Day is built up and celebrated well, so, of course we’ve followed suit at home.
On the night of the 5th of December, children organize and set out their shoes, and while they sleep, St. Nikolaus comes and fills them with treats and small toys. It’s a tradition much like Santa Claus filling stockings (though in Austria, it is the Christ child who brings the tree and gifts on Christmas Eve). For naughty children, St. Nikolaus does not come (or leaves only sticks), but instead there is the worry that the Krampus (a kind of demon) might come and carry them off instead. (We don’t talk much about Krampus, and the school doesn’t mention him at all, as far as I can tell.) I kind of picture St. Nikolaus’ Day as a pre-Christmas report card — are you doing well enough to get a visit from St. Nikolaus, or will it be the Krampus instead? — while there’s still time to make a change before Christmas. (We don’t use it that way, though — no threats of Krampus.)
The kids love it, and so do I. They wake up to a little bit of chocolate and a small toy or two, then go to school for a big party and another visit from Nikolaus (he brings chocolate, fruit and nuts to school). It’s a magical day for them, and a part of the fun and enthusiasm of the way Austria celebrates Advent. So much of the holidays here are not about Christmas Day, but about the whole season, and that’s a change we really enjoy. We’ve explained to the kids that St. Nikolaus pretty much only visits the children who life in Europe (which is why their friends and family in the US don’t know too much about it) but I suspect that he’ll make a special exception to visit our house, even after we’re living in the States again.