Thinking of Christmas in Austria many people probably have very romantic images of lots of snow, peace and lonely huts in the mountains. In truth modern life has not overlooked Austria while on the other hand many traditions are still not forgotten.
While the Roman-Catholic church is suffering from decreasing numbers of members it is still by far the biggest religious community in Austria. Even people who are not part of the church anymore grew up with the Christian and especially Catholic traditions most of the time. And still many customs are influenced by much older beliefs and do not seem very Christian at all.
The first snow in Austria usually falls at the end of October or beginning of November. It always melts again and although it can be relatively cold the beginning of winter is often relatively dry. There can be more snow at the end of November and in December - at the right time for opening the skiing season.
If there is snow in December this still does not mean that there will be white Christmas. In most years the unfortunate middle European 'Weihnachtstauwetter', the 'Christmas melting weather' will come. The name says it all. A warm period between Christmas and New Year will let all the pretty snow melt, especially in the lower regions of eastern Austria. Snow can again be expected from New Year onwards with the heaviest snowfall coming between January and March. This means that you should not go to Vienna for the holidays and expect white Christmas. You may be lucky, but the chances are about 3:7. If you want white Christmas in Austria you should go to regions with higher mountains.
The smell of winter
The look and smell of Austrian towns and cities at Christmas is mainly dependant on market stalls. The first traces can be seen in October already: small wooden huts appear in shopping streets and other areas where many people are expected. At its open side stands a large metal barrel with a fire to roast chestnuts and potatoes. The roast potatoes - available with various sauces - give the surrounding area a slightly sweet smell.
In mid November the 'Punschstandln' (punch stalls) appear. They are about twice the size of your average chestnut stall and often have christmas decorations. From small wooden counters punch, mulled wine and other hot alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are sold in ceramic or glass cups. On larger markets these cups often can be taken home or returned in exchange for some money. Sometimes a few stand-up bistro tables are added for people to drink and chat. Punch stalls are always surrounded by a smell of spices and alcohol - and in late evenings drunk or at least tipsy people.
The streets are decorated with lights and large, decorated Christmas trees are put up in squares and wide streets. In late November finally town squares are cleared from the usual markets, kebab or sausage stalls and other mobile buildings and furniture. More and more little wooden huts are put up day by day until finally the Advent markets are opened. All stalls are brightly illuminated and decorated. They sell everything: holiday decorations, cookies, nativity cribs and figures, food, knitted gloves and shawls, candles, pottery, jewellery, cheap clutter for too much money and usually more punch. Some markets even appear to consist mostly of punch stalls these days. The most famous Christkindlmarkt can be found in front of the city hall in Vienna in front of the city hall.
Christmas decorations can be found in all houses. They mostly consist of fir twigs, although mistletoe can be found too. Holly is almost completely absent. The fir twigs can be arranged with candles, pine cones, golden nuts, colorful berries and ribbons. People who don't go for the naturalistic style can of course find anything from glass balls to little angel figures and glittery stuff.
The streets in villages and towns are usually decorated with Christmas lights, stars and similar on trees and over shopping streets. People also like to decorate their gardens with lights, although this is not done as excessively as for instance in the USA. In some gardens illuminated snowmen and similar things can be found, too, but simple lights on trees are much more common.
The Advent wreath
On the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve Advent begins. By this time most people will have an Adventkranz (Advent wreath) at home, a Christian custom originating in Germany in the early 19th Century. Advent wreaths consist of a ring of straw or polystyrene on which fir twigs are bound with thin green wire, covering the whole ring. Four candle holders with candles are put on the wreath which is then decorated with ribbons and all kinds of natural and artificial decorations. They can be either quite simple or completely overloaded. Many people still make their Advent wreaths themselves while others can buy them in supermarkets, market gardens and other shops.
The size of the Advent wreath varies from about 30 to 50 cm in the diameter and they are usually kept on the dining table or somewhere in the living room. On every Sunday one more candle is lit until all four are burning on the last Sunday before Christmas. Especially in households with children this is often accompanied by Christmas stories and songs. Traditionally there are three purple and one pink candles, in analogy to the liturgical colors of Advent in the Catholic church. The pink candle is used on the third Sunday. There are in fact all colors of candles used on advent wreaths today and instead of actual wreaths arrangements of twigs and other decorations with four candles are not uncommon.
Huge Advent wreaths can be found in churches, often hung from the ceiling. Even in shopping malls big artificial Advent wreaths with light bulbs on plastic candles can be found as decorations. Even in schools (ordinary) Advent wreaths are put up in most classrooms. Unfortunately Advent wreaths are the cause for several fires at private homes every year.
Baking for Christmas
For a long time home made cookies and sweet breads were the only presents at Christmas and a wide variety of them was invented after sugar was widely available. The tradition to bake various cakes and cookies at Christmas is related to pagan beliefs, offerings to the gods and spirits which are active during the dark season. Up until today millions of Austrians spend a big part of their free time in December in the kitchen, creating all kinds of traditional and modern bakery products. Often the whole family will work together to in the end find out once again that 20 different kinds of cookies are probably too much. Large tins are brought from cellars and attics - where they have spent the last 10 or 11 months - to store all cookies sorted by type. The full tins are then stored away again to fill plates and bowls whenever it seems appropriate. Usually people try to eat not too many of them during Advent so they have not become boring by Christmas while children like to sneak to the tins and secretly get one of their favourite cookies.
But not only cookies are eaten at Christmas but also different Christmas 'breads'. Like in Germany there is Christstollen, a longish fruit cake made from yeast dough, loads of raisins and candied lemon and orange peel. The Christstollen is covered with heaps of icing sugar and is therefore said to symbolize baby Christ wrapped in cloth. Kletzenbrot (Kletzen = dried pears) or Zelten are other kinds of sweet bread filled with lots of dried fruits. Like at Easter and All Hallows there is often also Striezel, a sweet bread made of yeast dough that looks like a plait.
On December 4th is the day of St Barbara, Patron Saint of miners. According to legend she was sentenced to death for being a Christian and using water from her mug made a dry cherry twig bloom while she was imprisoned. On this day people therefore cut twigs from cherry trees and put them into a vase with water at home. If the twig is in bloom by Christmas this brings luck for the following year.
Nikolaus and Krampus
For most children the 5th December is the most special day before Christmas. In the evening of the 5th or the night between 5th and 6th December St Nikolaus comes to bring little presents. St Nikolaus has the appearance of a bishop: red, gold and white clothes, a high bishop's hat and golden staff. Very often he also has a golden book in which he writes down all good and bad things children have done. Good children will get a bag of nuts, apples, oranges, mandarins, chocolate and usually a small toy, book or similar. This can happen either by Nikolaus secretly putting it somewhere in the house or appearing in person at the home or in public places, kindergardens and schools.
The companion of Nikolaus is Krampus, a devil or demon-like creature. He has black or red fur, goat horns, big eyes and a very long red tongue and a tail. One of his feet is a hoof and in his hands he has big iron chains to rattle and a willow birch to whip naughty children. For the naughtiest of them Krampus has a large basket on his back to carry them away. Most of the time Krampus does not visit children with Nikolaus personally but he can leave a willow birch or coals for them.
At night in many villages hoards of young men dressed up as Krampusse run through the streets. This can be more or less violent, depending on how hard they whip spectators with their birches. Watching children may get chocolate but in some villages the night usually ends with broken windows and other damages. These days Krampus is also often mixed up with Perchten (see below) but although they are related they are not the same. The large Nikolaus procession in Windischgarsten (Upper Austria), which is focussed on Nikolaus and not Krampus, is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Both Nikolaus and Krampus are available as chocolate figures - like chocolate Easter bunnies. There even is the rumor that unsold bunnies are repacked and sold as Nikolaus and vice versa.
Who knocks at the door?
On the last three Thursdays before Christmas people, often dressed up as shepherds, are walking from house to house in the alpine regions of Austria. Originating in a pagan custom to learn about the future, people today sing Christian songs and tell about the birth of Jesus. In return for their songs they get food, drinks and/or money. The Tyrolian version of the Anklöpfeln is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages.
In other regions, especially the province Salzburg, there are plays of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn. Usually it consists mainly of 3 people: the holy family and an innkeeper. They may be accompanied by musicians and other helping characters. The story is told in a song that has Mary, Joseph and the innkeeper sing alternately.
Many villages also have the tradition that during advent a picture or statue of Mary (sometimes accompanied by Joseph) is 'guest' in a private house for a certain time. This can be a day, a week or the whole of Advent. The so-called 'Frauentragen' (carrying the woman) is accompanied by songs and prayer. At the mass at Christmas Mary returns to church.
Although Santa Claus (der Weihnachtsmann) is present on TV, decorations and even as a commercial figure in supermarkets and shops he is not the bringer of presents in Austria. Many people in fact see his coming as an invasion of local beliefs.
In Austria presents are brought by the Christkind (Christ Child), who is said to be Jesus as a child. In fact the perception of the Christkind is different: it is a girl with curly golden hair, a halo and white angel wings, who wears a white dress or nightshirt. It is often accompanied by 'ordinary' angels from whom it is distinguishable by its halo. Originally the Christkind was invented by Martin Luther who tried to make St Nikolaus - who originally brought the presents - redundant. The idea that the Christkind is an angel developed over a longer period of time and was also assimilated by the Catholics in the 19th Century, while in many Protestant regions of Germany the Weihnachtsmann became popular.
At the beginning of December children write a letter to the Christkind, writing down their wishes for Christmas. The letter is put on the window sill from where an angel picks it up and brings up to the sky/heaven (there is only one word for both in German), where the Christkind and its helpers live on clouds. They bake cookies (especially when the sky is pink) and build toys. The Christkind also brings advent calendars at 1st December.
During all of Advent parents often see angels and sometimes even the Christkind and repeatedly point this out to their children, who are usually too late to see them flying by. Finally, on Christmas Eve, Christkind and its helpers bring the Christmas tree and presents through a window in a locked up room. Very often an adult relative is allowed to help them. When everything is ready and the candles on the tree are lit a bell rings, the angels disappear and the children are allowed to enter the room.
The Christmas holidays
All schools and many companies are closed from 24th December to 6th January. Like in most western countries 24th December is the last chance to queue at shops and search for parking lots and generally get all fed up with Christmas shopping. Many offices are already closed on this day and shops close early. For the next three days everything will be closed and who forgot to buy something will not get it until the 27th (unless that is a Sunday, in which case they have to wait a day longer).
The 24th - like all of Advent - is a day of fasting and for a change people remember that and only have something small for lunch. Space is needed for the big Christmas dinner. While some spend their afternoon preparing food, others go for a walk or distract the children. Christian families usually go to the evening mass or a mass for children before returning home for dinner and presents. A sweating relative or parent has to take over the role of the Christkind while the rest of the family is not home or in a different room and secretly decorate the tree. In families with older children or no children this is of course done with less stress and sometimes even a day or more before the 24th.
Trees are usually bought 2 or 3 weeks before Christmas and are available at home improvement stores and even furniture stores. Although artificial trees are available, real firs and spruces are always prefered and add a distinct smell to every home. The custom of Christmas trees reached Austria in the 19th Century and was adapted from Germany. At first it was completely decorated with edible things, today there are of course glass balls and other ornaments next to chocolate and sweets wrapped into colorful paper. Electric lights in candle shape often - but not always - replace real candles. Next to or under (depending on children and pets) the tree stands usually a nativity crib with wooden figures and a stable. The size varies and may be anything from three figures (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) to a whole set with angels, shepherds and wise men. Cribs like that are also set up in churches but often in a much bigger size, some feature a whole landscape with many houses and figures and even a mechanism that makes people and animals move.
For the christmas dinner the closest family is usually present, this includes parents and children and often also grandparents. Traditional food is either fried carp or goose, because at Christmas ends the goose eating season that began at the day of St Martin. Other families prefer to have a dinner of cold food like meat, cheese and salads. The presents are exchanged either before or after the dinner - depending on the customs of the family and their patience. Good Christians go to the midnight mass that night.
On 25th December (Christtag) and 26th December (Stefanitag) there are usually bigger family gatherings and more heavy meals. After the celebrations many people go on skiing holidays, or they do the opposite and travel to warmer countries.
Silvester and New Year
On 27th December the post-Christmas shopping starts, which again leads to traffic jams and stressed people. There are only 5 days until the next national holiday - if no weekends get in the way. This results in full parking lots and traffic jams again. Christmas decorations are 50% off and unwanted presents are brought back to the shops.
On the 31st shops again close early. People spend the evening with friends and family, on parties or public celebrations. To pass time they try to have a look into the future. One of the most favourite ways to do this is 'Bleigießen', molybdomancy. Today tin is used instead of lead. Little good luck symbols made from tin are available in every supermarket. They are melted on a spoon (often included in the package) over a candle flame and then poured into a bowl of cold water which lets the metal solidify. The clump of metal is held against a lamp and its shadow examined. There are various possibilities to interpret the shape and its meaning. Those who manage to endure the TV program of this day are entertained with Dinner For One and Schlager Musik.
On this evening people also exchange good luck symbols with their friends and families. These are usually made of plastic, chocolate or marzipan. Common symbols are pigs, money, chimney sweeps, four leaf clover, horseshoes and fly agaric. They wish each other 'Guten Rutsch!' or 'Prosit neu Jahr!'.
Days before the 31st impatient people already light an occasional roket, but the peak of the fireworks is of course at midnight. This is accompanied by the ringing of the bell of St Stepehns Cathedral in Vienna, broadcast on all Austrian radio and TV stations and followed by the walz 'An der Schönen blauen Donau' by Johann Strauß which gets many people dancing in the streets.
New Year is a holiday for everybody. Those who manage to get up early enough watch the New Year's Concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker on TV before lunch.
The spirits of winter
The days between Christmas Eve (or sometimes winter solstice) and Epiphany are known as the 'Rauhnächte'. According to Germanic beliefs is a special time of the year. The spirits - good and evil - are very active during this period and the Wild Hunt is riding through the night. Animals can talk and divination is especially effective, happenings on these days may even foreshadow events of the New Year. To banish evil spirits and bring good fortune for the next year houses and stables are often incensed during the Rauhnächte, even today.
Especially on the last night between the 5th January and Epiphany so-called Perchtenläufe are held to drive away the evil spirits of winter. It is mostly men who dress up as the so-called Perchten, who can be beautiful (Schönperchten) but are most of the time ugly creatures (Schiachperchten). Schönperchten are well dressed men with extremely high hats, shaped like rectangles standing on one corner. These hats often are decorated with mirrors in which the evil spirits see themselves and run away. Schiachperchten on the other hand are ugly and come in various shapes. Most commonly they have long brown fur, ugly faces with long teeth (wooden masks) and long crooked horns. They wear bells to scare away the spirits and a birch to hit people for good luck. The Perchten of Bad Gastein are an Intangible Cultural Heritages of the UNESCO.
In most regions the Perchten run through the streets one evening, accompanied by lots of noise. There are other areas where they visit people at home to bring more personal wishes for a good new year. Sometimes they are even accompanied by Frau Percht, who is related to Frau Holle (Mother Hulda)1. She checks if people's houses are tidy, rewards the hard working and punishes the lazy.
A special variety of the Schönperchten are the Glöckler ('bell ringers') of the province Salzburg. They are dressed completely in white, with large bells on their belts. On their heads they wear huge colorful paper lanterns which are illuminated by candles. The Glöckler walk through villages at night, until they all meet in a huge procession in the town Ebensee. This tradition is also on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages.
The three kings
Epiphany or 'Heilige Drei Könige' (Holy Three Kings) is the end of the Christmas celebrations in Austria and a national holiday. The Sternsinger (star singers), children dressed up as the three kings go from house to house. They wear crowns and capes and have a star on a pole. One king (Melchior) is always black. They sing about the birth of Jesus, recite poems and incense the house. To give blessings to the house for the new year they write the year and C+M+B on the frame on top of the front door of the house with consecrated chalk. This officially means 'Christus mansionem benedicat', Christ bless this house, an interpretation which seems to have been invented in the 20th Century. Originally the letters were simply the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. These letters stay on the doorframe until they either disappear themselves or until the children come again in the following year. In return for their blessings the Sternsinger get sweets and a donation or money for poor children.
On Epiphany many people get rid of their Christmas tree and decorations. Most of the cookies are eaten and normal workdays start again on the next day.