GRAZ, Austria — Austrian traditionalists have stepped up their campaign against the incursion of Santa Claus into the local delivery business in an effort to support their traditional present provider: Christkind.
Until recently Christkind had near-exclusive rights over miraculously delivering presents, together with a candle-laden tree, to well-behaved Austrian children. Christkind conveniently passes his through the window on Christmas Eve, so there was no need for Santa to drop down the chimney hours later.
But Santa has been making inroads. The Christmas Eve gift-giving ritual is still observed in most homes, but mock Santas can be seen scaling the chimney-stack on many homes, while a glittering sleigh is a common theme of outdoor light displays and shop windows.
The Pro-Christkind movement hopes to stop the rot. This year it will start labeling shops decorated in the purely Austrian Christmas aesthetic, which does not include rotund, older men in red suits with white fur trimming, sleighs or mischievous helpmates. Christkind himself is an import from protestant Germany who was first mentioned in Austria in 1870, when he started supplanting an older seasonal tradition of giving offerings to household spirits.
A “no-Santa” logo, where Santa is crossed out as it would be in a prohibition sign, was dropped by Pro-Christkind in 2003 after outrage from America, but it is still a prominent rallying flag for the 72 Facebook groups supporting the cause.
“It’s not against Santa. He is good for the British and Americans but he is not good for us,” said Walter Kriwetz, who organised a candle-lit Pro-Christkind demonstration in Austria’s second largest city, Graz, to mark the start of Advent.
“Shopkeepers ask us what they should have instead of a Santa? We recommend they have angels or shepherds. We prefer shepherds to angels,” said Christoph Tschaikner, leader of the movement.
About 100 people joined the Graz procession through the mulled wine and roast chestnut stalls of the old city to the marching rhythm of a bass and snare drum. Similar events are taking place in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.
“Christkind is a wonderfully beautiful Christmas story,” said Katrina Scheuer, a 21-year-old student who was among those formed into a candle-lit star on Graz’s main bridge. Santa, she said, is an invention of Coca Cola, which represents only gaudy commercialism.
Sandro Galik, a 35-year-old from Vienna, opposes the anti-Santa camp, noting that Coca Cola did not invent the red and white Santa image, only popularised it. “What they are saying is only half true.”
“I don’t think Christkind is any less materialistic than Santa,” Galik said. “It is still about presents, after all. And Santa brings people together. Children can believe in him whatever their background.”
In some houses with a parent from outside Austria the two traditions could compete head-to-head. But Angela Schoepfer, a 33-year-old American living in Graz, said reconciling them is not a problem. “Having both of them adds to it. They come on different days.”
Other outsiders with Austrian-born children have some reservations about keeping two myths alive before their children’s eyes.
“It’s very stressful to secretly set up the tree on the 24th,” said 51-year-old American father of three Steve Weiss. Also stressful is taking the children away while the elaborate illusion is prepared.
“Austrians have explained to me what a magical feeling it is to return to the house and to hear the tinkling bell when Christkind arrives and seeing the tree and presents,” said Weiss. “But, whichever tradition you follow, it is the magical illusion that makes it.”
Knowing the strength of feeling the Christkind tradition can bring to some people might explain why Weiss’s father, an emigre from Austria to America, often seemed strangely disappointed on Christmas Eve in New Jersey.