On a Saint Nicholas’ Eve long, long ago, my friend Rob and I were chased by a stick-wielding monster through the snowy streets of Salzburg, Austria. It was Krampus, a furry, horned, long-tongued devil who accompanies Saint Nicholas in Alpine regions.
In many European countries, children receive their presents on Saint Nicholas’ Day, Dec. 6. While Saint Nick delivers toys to the good, little boys and girls the night before his feast day, Krampus threatens the children who misbehave with his stick and leaves coal behind. If Krampus finds an especially bad child, he tosses him or her in his sack and takes him or her back to his lair for a long winter’s snack.
In Salzburg and other alpine cities and towns, young men dress up as Krampus and run through the streets, chasing any children they find. Sometimes, the young men get a little carried away and chase adults, too.
The next morning, after surviving our scare, Rob and I took the train through a wondrous alpine snowscape to the city of Graz to visit Rob’s father’s Uncle Rudy and his family. We were welcomed into their Saint Nicholas’ Day celebration with open arms and heaps of schnitzel, strudel and schnapps.
Uncle Rudy’s house, like most in Austria, had a bar in the basement. We drank many toasts, sang along while Cousin Norbert played guitar and drank some more.
It was one of those happy holiday nights I will never forget.
Christmas in Seattle
Since that December, when I was studying abroad in Europe, I have taken notice of how different people and places celebrate Christmas. While Seattle doesn’t have any monsters roaming its streets this month (at least none accompanied by Saint Nicholas), it does have its share of unique holiday traditions.
For a little taste of what I experienced in Austria, Seattleites could head up to Leavenworth, the well-known Bavarian tourist village that advertises itself as the “ultimate holiday town.” Of course, a trip to any of the nearby mountains would put anyone in the Christmas spirit.
For those who don’t like to experience snow outdoors, Pacific Place downtown has indoor snow every day at 6 p.m. in its atrium. Nordstrom builds a cottage for Santa Claus every year next to its downtown store at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street.
There’s also the holiday carousel at Westlake Center, Winterfest at Seattle Center, the lights atop the Space Needle and the nearby TV tower on Queen Anne Hill and, Seattle’s most famous Christmas tradition, the Argosy Christmas Ships, celebrated on ship or from shore.
Some Seattleites prefer their annual Christmas traditions to occur indoors, specifically in a theater: “The Nutcracker” at McCaw Hall, “A Christmas Carol” at the ACT Theatre, “Black Nativity” at the Moore Theatre, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” at the Stone Soup Theater and, for those who prefer nontraditional holiday shows with lots of makeup, the “Dina Martina Christmas Show” at Re-bar.
Seattle’s best Christmas traditions occur in its individual neighborhoods. The small-town feeling of some — like Wallingford, Magnolia and Madison Park — is really pronounced this time of year, with tree lightings, visits from Santa Claus and church and school concerts and bazaars.
Gatherings at favorite neighborhood restaurants, café’s, bars and residences all add to the Christmas cheer, as well as the innumerable light displays on every street of our city.
Home for Christmas
I’m sure most of Seattle’s important Christmas traditions occur within its homes. As for my Christmas home, I travel back to Connecticut, where I grew up, and stay with my mother. This year, when I wake up on Dec. 25, it will be my 40th consecutive Christmas morning waking up in the same house.
Later, my mother, sister and I will head to a church a couple of blocks away, where Wilemskis have been sitting in the pews every Christmas since the 1930s.
But it is my family’s Christmas food traditions that bring back the most memories. Whenever I smell celery and onions sautéing, it reminds me of my father making stuffing on Christmas Eve. My sister’s butterball cookies taste just like the ones our grandmother made for decades. I’ve never had a slice of apple pie as good as the one my mother makes for Christmas dessert.
Sadly, a more recent family tradition has been a trip to a cemetery the last nine years to visit my father’s grave. My mother, sister and I usually stop there on the way to my brother’s boisterous house for dinner.
There’s nothing quieter than a cemetery on Christmas day: footfalls on hard snow, the creaking of bare tree limbs, a honk from a passing goose.
It is here, away from all the hustle and bustle of our modern Christmas, that you can contemplate the ancient traditions of the yuletide season: to remember loved ones, to appreciate blessings and to celebrate life in all its infinite mystery.
MATTHEW WILEMSKI is an award-winning columnist. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.