The Austrian part of my ancestry comes from a spot in Carinthia just north of the point where Austria borders Italy and Slovenia; good skiing in winter, rich hill pastures in summer. Like good mountain Celts, they have dwelt there for ever in thick timber farmhouses perched around the valleys, still using Haflinger horses on slopes too steep for tractors to work. And like good mountain Celts, they've never quite abandoned their pre-Christian mid winter rituals.
So alongside Coca-Cola's Santa Claus we grew up with the Krampuli and the Perchten. These were St Nicholas' assistants, the inquisitors of Christmas. They had fearful animal faces, all horns and fangs, and matted fur and were hung around with chains. In the darkest nights of midwinter, they would visit each isolated farmhouse around the valley, no bolted door or barricade an obstacle, to bring gift or punishment to us children. If we'd been good, a small silver coin and a bundle of birch twigs would be left - the birch twigs a reminder of punishment. If we'd been really bad, the Krampuli would slit our bellies open, remove our stomach and guts and stuff the cavity with straw and stones. Clearly the pagan message was acceptable enough to the Church for the tradition to be allowed to survive, and even now in that remote valley, just as Sidcup man dons Santa outfit and beard, one of my relatives will be dusting off his mask and chains to do the rounds of the valley after dark to scare the shit out of everyone under 30.
Merry Christmas, all.