St. Nick, nein! A ban on St. Nicholas at Vienna's kindergartens is taking some 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.
In most kids, the sight of a strange bearded figure elicits fear, not joy, they argue. And they point out that the policy on St. Nicholas is more than a decade old -- though they acknowledge it is being enforced more rigorously than in the past.
Although Santa rules in the far north, the jolly old man has little tradition in Austria and surrounding countries.
As in past years, some booths at Vienna's main Christmas market are 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 silly, opponents of the "No to St. Nick" policy contend.
To child psychiatrist Max Friedrich, the ban is "total nonsense." In recent comments to the daily newspaper Oesterreich, he described Nicholas as a "positive figure who encourages and rewards children."
Officials in several Austrian provinces said they had no plans to banish St. Nick from their kindergartens.
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, who has 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 had 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 that his party "would not allow the dismantling of Christian traditions out of a falsely interpreted 'political correctness.' "
Heinz-Christian Strache, whose far-right 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.