Santa Claus is coming to town - and many Austrians wish he'd just stay home. The jolly old elf is getting an icy reception in this alpine country that gave the world "Silent Night" and clings to beloved Christmas traditions.
A small but boisterous movement alarmed at the intrusion of the American-style Old Saint Nick is crusading to keep the traditional St. Nikolaus and the Christ Child as the reason for the season.
Organizers insist they're not anti-Santa. But stickers depicting Santa with a diagonal red bar across his fluffy white beard are showing up on the stalls of Vienna's outdoor Christmas markets, where bundled-up shoppers browse for gifts while holding steaming cups of hot mulled wine or spiked punch in mittened hands.
"We're not really against Santa Claus. For some people, Santa Claus has his qualities," said Phillip Tengg, 27, a former divinity student who founded the Pro-Christkind (Pro-Christ Child) Society in 1998 in the western city of Innsbruck.
"We're against the fact that Santa Claus has become an advertising symbol of almost boundless consumption. It obscures the true meaning of Christmas. He's displacing the traditional St. Nikolaus and the Christ Child."
To be sure, Austria's Christmas traditions can be a bit bewildering to outsiders.
The season begins on Dec. 5, when a horned, fur-clad beast known as Krampus mock-rampages through streets and malls, terrorizing small children with switches and chains and trying to scoop them into his bucket. The next day, St. Nikolaus arrives wearing a bishop's miter and delivers biscuits and sweets.
On Christmas Eve, the Christkind, or Christ Child, sneaks into homes and deposits presents under the tree. On Dec. 25 families gather for a traditional meal of baked carp.
Tengg's group, which claims about 100 members from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, is alarmed at all the Santas and reindeer popping up at Christmas markets devoted to nativity scenes and angels.
The backlash resonates among Austrians like Lydia Krebs, who take pride in the traditions observed in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where priest Joseph Mohr wrote "Silent Night" - originally "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" - in 1816.
"Our Christmas traditions are so beautiful, and Santa takes something away from them," she said Thursday from behind her stand of glass-blown ornaments, gingerbread houses and miniature creches. "My sister lives in Atlanta, and Christmas is so awful there - so hectic, and so many lights. It's just too commercial."
On its Web site, Pro-Christkind says it wants to encourage "critical reflection over trends like Santa Claus" and hopes Austrians "will understand that Christmas is a celebration of people and God, not a consumer frenzy."
Not surprisingly, the movement is supported by the Archdiocese of Vienna, which is struggling to woo back the 80 percent of Austrians who think of themselves as Catholics but rarely, if ever, attend Mass.
Pro-Christkind's members include Bishop Alois Kothgasser, who told Austrian radio recently that he considers himself "pro-Christ Child and anti-Santa." Kath.Net, a group of German-speaking Catholic believers, applauds "the protest against the pervasive Santa Claus."
Besides its sticker campaign ("We Believe in the Christ Child"), Pro-Christkind is urging Austrians inclined to e-mail their holiday greetings to consider its Christ Child e-cards.
The issue is hotly debated in the group's chat room. "I'll say it just once: Beat it, Santa!" wrote a woman who gave her name only as Eva. "Your pseudo-religious blah-blah is priceless," retorted a man called Jeff.
Martina Voigt, a Pro-Christkind leader, says it is signing up 20 new members every day.
"We don't have anything against Santa Claus," Voigt told the daily Tiroler Tageszeitung. "We just don't want him to control everything."
By William J. Kole