VIENNA, Austria – St. Nick, nein! A ban on St. Nicholas at Vienna's kindergartens is taking some of the ho-ho-ho out of the holidays for tens of thousands of tots this year.
And it's creating a political ruckus, with opposition parties accusing City Hall of kowtowing to a growing Muslim population by showing Europe's Santa the kindergarten door.
Municipal officials insist their decision is prompted more by psychology than political correctness.
Instead of joy, the sight of a strange bearded figure at the door evokes fear in most kids, they argue. And they point out that the policy on St. Nicholas is more than a decade old — though they concede it is being enforced more rigorously than in the past.
While Santa rules in the far north, the jolly elf has little tradition in Austria and surrounding countries. As in past years, some booths at Vienna's main Christmas market are again plastered with stickers depicting Santa with a diagonal red bar across his fluffy white beard — the work of a group in Austria, Switzerland and Germany that sees Santa as a symbol of the commercialization of Christmas and a threat to local traditions.
Instead, kids grow up with traditional Dec. 6 visits from St. Nicholas or Nikolo — a bearded, mitered figure in bishop's garb dating back to the 4th century who hands out sweets to good girls and boys. Christmas is reserved for the "Christkind" or Christ Child, who sneaks into homes and deposits presents under the tree and sometimes brings the tree itself.
As for naughty kids, there is St. Nick's sidekick, who in Austria goes under the name of "Krampus" — a hairy behorned figure who gives them lumps of coal and threatens them with a swipe of his switch unless they mend their ways.
But suggesting St. Nick is as scary as Krampus is just plain dumb, argue opponents of the "No to St. Nick" policy.
For child psychiatrist Max Friedrich, the ban is "total nonsense." He described Nicholas as a "positive figure who encourages and rewards children," in comments Wednesday to the daily Oesterreich.
Officials in several Austrian provinces said they had no plans to banish St. Nick from their kindergartens. In the U.S., some schools celebrate all major religious holidays, using them as a learning experience, while others don't have any observances in order not to offend any group.
Grete Laska, the councilwoman who holds Vienna's youth portfolio, says both Krampus and St. Nick "create fear (and) have no place" in city kindergartens, particularly when parents and schools encourage children not to accept gifts from strangers. The kindergartens can hold Christmas parties — but without St. Nick.
Such arguments don't hold with people like Anna Seiler, with two grandchildren in kindergarten.
"One of them was all sad recently, saying that Santa won't be visiting this year," she said. "I think the parents should get together and complain."
A pediatric nurse, Seiler dismisses arguments that children fear St. Nick. A surgeon dressed as St. Nick "comes every year to the kids on our ward," she said. "They love it."
"I think it's for ethnic and cultural reasons," said Seiler, suggesting it was in deference to Vienna's Muslim population — 400,000 and growing.
Mouddar Khouja of the Official Religious Islamic Community in Austria said his group has no problems with St. Nick in kindergartens — or anywhere else in Austria.
"We accept the Christian orientation of this country," he said. "We don't want to ban Nikolo."
Most schools in Vienna do not celebrate Muslim holidays, although those with large Muslim student populations may opt to observe them.
Markus Kroiher, head of the youth wing of the centrist People's Party declared his party "would not allow the dismantling of Christian traditions out of a falsely interpreted 'political correctness."'
Heinz-Christian Strache, whose far-right anti-foreign Freedom Party showed strongly in Oct. 1 elections, called the assertion that St. Nick frightens kids a "cover ... bordering on absurdity."
"Whoever comes to Austria must realize it's a Christian country. Christian traditions are part of the equation," said Strache aide Hans-Joerg Jenewein.