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San Nicola and the Krampus: How parts of Italy celebrate December 6th

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San Nicola and the Krampus: How parts of Italy celebrate December 6th
A rapt audience gazes at Saint Nicholas and the Krampus. Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP.

The Feast of St Nicholas and the Krampus are important festive traditions in some European countries, and surprisingly this includes Italy - or parts of it.

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Many European countries celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas on December 6th, and for some it represents the start of the Christmas period

But who was Saint Nicholas? Is he the same as Santa Claus? Is December 6th an important date in Italy?

And who or what are the Krampus, who make an appearance in some Italian alpine towns and cities on and around the same day?

Who was St. Nicholas?

Nicholas of Myra (now the Anatolia region of modern Turkey) was a Greek Christian bishop who died on December 6th, 346.

He was known for miracles and giving gifts secretly, and is now the patron saint of little children, sailors, merchants, and students.

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According to legend, he once gave three apples to three hungry children which turned into gold the next day - which is why he's often depicted in paintings holding three pieces of fruit.

St. Nicholas and his golden fruit. Source: Wikicommons.

As in Germany and Austria, in Italy he's not the same character as Santa Claus, who's known as Babbo Natale and isn't traditional to Italian Christmas celebrations but is a modern import from the UK and US (unlike La Befana, the gift-giving witch who visits children on the eve of Epiphany).

How does Italy celebrate St. Nicholas?

It doesn't, really - it's not a national holiday like the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, and only a few parts of the country celebrate in any shape or form.

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One of those places is Bari, the capital of the southern region of Puglia, as San Nicola - also known as San Nicolò - is the city's patron saint (the city also celebrates his feast day on May 9th).

READ ALSO: Italy's Christmas markets: Where and when to visit in 2023

The celebrations start with a very early morning mass in the Basilica di San Nicola, where the saint's relics are kept, followed by a breakfast of hot chocolate and other festive treats.

In the evening there's a torchlit procession that starts and finishes at the basilica, the lights on the city's Christmas tree are turned on to officially announce the start of Christmas, and there's traditionally a fireworks display.

 

At the other end of the country, in towns and villages in Italy's central and eastern Alpine areas, San Nicola traditions more closely resemble those of nearby Austria and Germany. 

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

In the northeastern city of Trieste and towns in Italy's Sud Tirol/Alto Adige region - which was once part of Austria and remains culturally very Austrian - some children go to bed on the night of the 5th hoping to wake up to gifts of sweets and toys left by the saint.

But there's also another character that makes an appearance on December 6th in parts of Alto Adige: the Krampus.

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Who/what is the Krampus?

The Krampus is a horned anthropomorphic devil-creature who appears in traditional folklore in parts of German-speaking and Central Europe, whose purpose is to terrorise children into behaving well.

It's the other half of kind of double act with Saint Nicolas; children who have been good receive sweets and gifts from the bishop, but children who've been naughty will get coal and a thrashing with birch rods from the Krampus.

READ ALSO: Where to catch Italy's most impressive Christmas displays in 2023

Many towns and cities in these regions have a Krampuslauf - a Krampus run - in which performers dressed in scary costumes with carved wooden masks, huge horns and long hair parade through the streets. 

In Italy's German-speaking Sud Tirol, many towns and cities continue this tradition, with the Krampus (or, in South Tyrolean dialect, Tuifl) appearing in Christmas markets on the night of the 5th and the 6th, and increasingly on various days throughout the Christmas period.

In the past the tradition of the Krampus rampaging through the streets could be frightening, but these days it's become a more family-friendly affair. On December 6th in the town of Meran/Merano, San Nicolò parades through the market and faces off with the Krampus.

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