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Austria campaign to save Christkind from Santa Claus

By Phil Cain
BBC News, Graz

Candle-lit procession, Graz
Pro-Christkind followers do not welcome the presence of reindeers

A candle-lit procession makes a solemn passage through jolly, rosy-cheeked throngs standing at mulled wine and chestnut stands in the old quarter of Graz, Austria's second city.

The cause? To save Christkind, their Christmas gift giver, from the red and white menace of Santa Claus.

Generations of awe-struck Austrians have heard a tinkling bell and found Christkind has miraculously left them a fully decorated tree and presents after dark on Christmas Eve.

To some, he, she or it is a winged angel, but to most just a half-seen flash of light through a window. It is part of a reflective Christmas tradition, which has little of the bacchanalian revelry to which many British look forward.

Instead, the emphasis is on peace, calm, hearth, home and family, who are central to most Austrians' lives all year round.

"Christkind is a wonderfully beautiful Christmas story," says Katrina Scheuer, a 21-year-old student, one of those who joined in the parade.

Santa, on the other hand, she says, was invented by Coca-Cola and is simply an outrider to the arrival of soulless consumerism.

Bringing presents

Sandro Galik, a 35-year-old from Vienna, begs to differ, having set up an informal pro-Santa resistance.

We are not against Santa. He is good for the British and Americans but he is not good for us
Walter Kriwetz
Pro-Christkind movement

"I don't think Christkind is any less materialistic than Santa," he says. "It is still about presents."

Coca-Cola did not actually invent Santa as many say, he points out, but instead put its weight behind an already popular depiction of Santa in the 1930s.

Job demarcation along national lines has support, even among those with some lingering affection for Santa, or his British cousin, Father Christmas.

"Christkind is bringing my presents this year," says Emily Meixner, a four-year-old with an Austrian father and British mother, after a moment's pause for thought. "Father Christmas brings them to England."

Others, like American mother-of-two Angela Schoepfer, are convinced they can work together. "After all they come on different days," she says.

"We are not against Santa. He is good for the British and Americans but he is not good for us," says Walter Kriwetz, organised the Graz procession in the name of the nine-year-old Pro-Christkind movement.

Christkind labelling

Nevertheless, the presence of Santas, sleighs or reindeer is still not welcomed by the followers of Pro-Christkind.

Decorations
Santa's presence is not welcomed by the followers of Pro-Christkind

A "Santa-free" logo, dropped after it prompted anger in America in 2003, is still widely used as a humorous rallying symbol on many of the 72 unofficial Facebook Pro-Christkind pages.

And the almost complete absence of Santa from Graz's city centre is taken to be a measure of the campaign's success. "Things have got better since we started nine years ago," he says.

There will be even fewer Santas to be seen in the future if Mr Kriwetz has his way.

The movement is stepping up its efforts to flush out the few survivors, introducing a "Christkind-friendly" labelling scheme for shops which want the Pro-Christkind seal of approval.

A sleigh and reindeer parked over a nearby pub doorway was put up by a resident and so is outside the purview of the certification scheme, he laments.

Better delivery?

Christkind, like Santa, is an imported tradition, albeit an older one.

Decoration
To some in Austria, Christkind is a winged angel

It started in the Protestant areas of Germany in the 16th Century, but only arrived in largely Catholic Austria in 1870, says the curator of the Joanneum museum in Graz.

It then went on to steadily supplant an even older Austrian custom of giving seasonal offerings to household spirits.

Outside Graz's city centre, a bastion of traditional Austrian ways, mock Santas are still to be seen clambering up ropes into Austrian homes and also frequent modern shopping centres.

Yet in most Austrian homes, the real Santa is still not as eagerly expected as Christkind.

From the point of view of his principal clients, Christkind still has the crucial advantage of beating his rival's delivery times by several hours.



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