Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

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Traditions run deep here, and that’s one of the things I love about Croatia.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, something I’ve celebrated since I was a kid. Sarge grew up in Florida and missed out on this particular custom. In my childhood suburb of Cincinnati, St. Nicholas Day was definitely a part of the Christmas culture. If you woke up Dec. 6 with coal in your stocking, you knew you had a few weeks to shape up before Santa came. St. Nick was the one who filled stockings with fruit, nuts, chocolate coins and probably a toothbrush. The official countdown to Christmas break was on.

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Our boys came home from school on Monday talking about how their classmates said St. Nick brought sticks to naughty children here instead of coal. And instead of stockings, kids here polish up a shoe or boot and place it on a windowsill or doorstep. They go to sleep hoping for candy instead of sticks.

Last night, our boys chose the biggest shoe they could find. Our oldest cleaned up a hiking boot, and our youngest set a high-top Converse outside our doorstep. In the morning, they woke up to shoes full of tangerines, pistachios, candy coins, a chocolate St. Nick and a chocolate Krampus (the Christmas devil). Oh, yeah, and the evil American Elf on the Shelf showed up here, too. We should have named him Krampus.

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I don’t remember Krampus ever being part of our St. Nicholas traditions growing up, but as an adult, I can fully appreciate the fear the beast-like creature can instill in kids who don’t want to be punished for being naughty.

Krampus was on full display in our town in Croatia today. Just after dark, Krampus, St. Nicholas and a man dressed as an elf marched through the Old Town in an odd little ritual that’s part of the advent celebration here. It wasn’t quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the boys were expecting, but it was memorable.

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When I read up on other traditions associated with this day in Croatia, I learned that in the fishing village of Komiza on one of the islands, they honor St. Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. On St. Nicholas Day, they carry his statue in a procession and burn an old boat in front of the saint’s church as they pray for protection for the next year. Then they throw the ashes on newly built boats as a blessing.

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As a family living abroad, we are short on holiday traditions this year. We haven’t tromped through woods for a tree or even put up a fake one. We will miss family gatherings back home. And since we are away, we aren’t sending out our annual Christmas cards.

But today, in addition to the treat-filled shoes, we also had a bottle of homemade fresh-pressed olive oil placed on our doorstep. We ran into people we knew in Zadar’s Old Town. We admired the Christmas market’s lights, and the smell of vendors’ pancakes and mulled wine. And we’ll all have a hard time getting Krampus out of our minds.