Return to index page

December 06, 2004

The Cockroaches of Christmas

A schabe is a cockroach. A strohschabe is a cockroach made of straw. Or perhaps one that lives in straw, I’m not sure. The arrival of the these creatures signifies that the Christmas season has begun, naturally. After all, when you think Christmas, you think cockroaches, right? Um, yeah.

We got to Krungl early enough to watch the Strohschabe get ready to go. But before they got dressed, there was exhibition whipping. Again, you think whipping, you think Christmas, right? Actually, it was pretty cool. The guys stand in a circle and do this percussive thing with the whips, the sound is loud and sharp and rhythmic. From what I could gather – and information is rather thin on the ground when your source is a lot of punsch and gluhwein slurping Austrians - their job is to clear the town of leftover bad spirits. I’m not sure if it’s the giant cockroach thing or the noise, but if a big old haystack swinging a whip comes after you, you hightail it out of the way, that’s for sure.

Anyway, once the whole whipping circle thing has concluded, the boys get suited up in their Strohschabe outfits. The whole bundle weighs about 25 kilos, it’s a packet to carry around, that’s for sure. There are two grass skirts and they’re topped by the headpiece with the massive antennae sticking out of them. Getting in to it is a project, it takes a handful of strapping farmers to enclose a willing victim in to the whole package.

In the Mitterndorf area and surrounds, the Strohschabe are part of the Krampusspiele. Folks have gone “Krampus” crazy in this part of the world. The Krampus (pronounced grampus) is a wooly monster with a somewhat satanic visage and great big horns. The Krampus run though town wielding broom sticks with which to whack the legs of passers-by. You can tell they’re coming because they’re wearing giant bells, but you can’t get away fast enough, and frankly, you’re transfixed by these creatures from Where the Wild Things Are. In our town of Aigen, the Krampusspiele is small, there are six or eight of these creatures accompanying St. Niklaus on his rounds, but up the road in Krungl, they were having a full on Krampusfest, with 30 or 40 of them running the streets, terrorizing little kids, mauling the adults, and generally creating a ruckus.

In addition to the Krampus and the Strohschab, there were a whole lot of supporting cast members including a bishop, a night watchman, a blacksmith, a handful of angels, Death, the Kaiser, the “half-goat” something that looked like a cross between a bear and a giraffe, and the aforementioned Strohschabe.

Here’s how the whole thing goes down. The nightwatchman blows his horn. Then there’s a procession through town of all the likely and unlikely characters accompanying St. Niklaus on his rounds. They’re followed by the total chaos of the Krampus rampage. Finally, after enough little kids have been traumatized with nightmares that will last the next ten years, the Strohschabe come through and clear the streets, swinging their whips as they go. Meanwhile, back at the inn, there’s a whole routine going on where St. Niklaus interrogates any kids left standing. He asks them if they’ve been good, they recite a little poem, and they get some small treat for their participation, oranges, peanuts, maybe some chocolates. We watched a bit of it through the gasthaus windows and headed home.

I still have a lot of unanswered questions about the whole thing. I know that a lot of it is leftover pagan tradition from a pre-Catholic Austria, but I still don’t understand what, exactly, a Strohschab is. Stand by, I’m looking in to it.

There's a photo album from the event here.

Posted by pam at December 6, 2004 02:01 AM | TrackBack
Comment spammers: see our Unauthorized Advertising Policy and rates

Wow! I love hearing about cultural events in other countries. Thanks, Pam, for opening our eyes to more of the strangeness in the world...

Posted by: Peter on December 6, 2004 10:34 PM
Post a comment