Christmas is approaching at a fast pace and it feels great to be writing again and this time about Austrian Christmas Traditions.
This has been a transitional period for me. When you change countries and you just arrived from a place where you have been happy and have found true friends whom you consider family, you find it hard to let go. You cling to those memories, the friends are still there for you but everything else is gone. At the same time you need to face your new reality, build a new life, basically start over.
This is my first winter in Austria and it has been a challenging time as I expected. Although this is my husband’s country and I had often been here on vacation, it is not the same as living here.
It always takes time to adjust and adapt to a new culture, new language and a new environment. Being a European brings me certain advantages but there is still a lot to learn and we, the people of the sunny south of Europe, are quite different from the central Europeans.
When Portugal joined the European Community in 1986 (which would become the EU in 1993), the elder in particular, worried that we would lose our traditions, our culture and the essence of what it means to be Portuguese. What the freedom of movement between European countries would bring was a matter of great concern.
If all these years abroad have taught me anything, it is that it is quite impossible to forgo your roots. It is in your genes after all. The blood, the country, the traditions, the culture, it is all part of who you are. You can live abroad for a lifetime but you will still be you with everything that entails.
They say in Rome, be a Roman! I can act like a Roman, speak like a Roman, even look like one but underneath I know I will never be the real thing. And that is fine. I am proud of my roots, be it through my blood line or through the territory I came to life in, I will always be Portuguese.
But safeguarding who I am does not prevent me from wanting to travel, discover other cultures and traditions. It enriches my life story. Each country opens up a world of possibilities to study and explore. I love that.
I felt it was important for me and for my four and a half year old daughter to discover more about the Austrian Christmas season and traditions. My husband having spent most of his life abroad, suggested I ask his father.
What I discovered truly exceeded my expectations. My father in law explained that some of the traditions are no longer the same in line with our modern times. He was born in Styria (Steiermark) and was raised in an alpine village. Each village has its own traditions so on the same dates the rituals can differ from village to village.
The Festive season starts in November. The beginning of the month is marked as in most European countries, by honoring the departed loved ones.
On November 1, All Saints Day, Austrians visit the cemeteries, and pay homage to their dead with flowers and lighting of candles.
The following day, November 2 or All Soul’s day, it is customary for Austrians to place a cup of milk to honor the children who have died and a candle by the window to help lost souls find their way home. This was particularly important right after the end of World War II when many Austrian soldiers never returned home from Russia.
What follows are the most important traditions and rituals that will culminate with the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25:
Perchten Ritual 9-10 November
In the village of my father in law there would be a knock on your door. You knew they were coming. Ghostly spirits, in long dresses. One group dressed in black and the other in white with their faces completely covered with fabric or old nylon stockings. As spirits you were not supposed to see their eyes or hair. They entered in silence each carrying a cloth in their hands.
The black spirits initiated the ritual. Using the cloths they wiped clean the surfaces, clearing away all the bad feelings and emotions. Then the white spirits followed, wiping to give you good fortune and good feelings. At the end of the ritual, donations were collected. They never spoke and would also leave in silence. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just wipe away all our problems and make a new fresh start?
In neighboring villages the black Perchten dressed as evil spirits resembling devils and the white in beautiful angelical white dresses. Their rituals consisted of a street group dance performance only. The black spirits carrying bells were noisy and showed a violent behavior.
There are still today Perchten rituals performed in Austria particularly in the states of Salzburg and Tyrol. It has also become a tourist attraction. The black Perchten have become more and more devilish and scary looking showing more violent behavior.
Beginning of Carnival Season and St. Martin’s day – November 11
On 11.11 at 11 in the morning the start of Carnival season is celebrated in Austria, ending on Ash wednesday of the following year.
In Vienna for example, at 11 in the morning, people dance the Viennese waltz in the streets to mark this important date. There is a merry atmosphere in the air and anyone can participate so if you happen to be in the center don’t hesitate. You can even learn how to dance the traditional quadrille as there are dance teachers from Viennese dance Academies at hand to help you. It also marks the beginning of ball season, an important part of the winter celebrations in Austria.
Carnival is the time to be merry. In the countryside the crops are completed and don’t require anymore attention. In the vineyards the new wines are ready to be consumed. People can finally relax, celebrate and enjoy the Christmas season and the winter festivities.
Carnival also marked the beginning of the “Krapfen” season displayed in the best pastry shops and bakeries. The delicious round pastry traditionally filled with apricot jam or vanilla sauce remains a favourite. Now you can find them everywhere all year round, even in supermarkets filled with different kinds of fruit jams or different types of chocolate fillings. However, traditionally apricot jam is still the most popular.
November 11 is also St. Martin’s day. The goose became the symbol of St. Martin of Tours, a roman soldier who cut his cloak in two to share it with and protect a poor beggar from the cold. When he dreamt of Jesus wearing the half cloak and telling the angels and saints how generous Martin had been, he converted to Christianity. Later he became a monk and led a very simple life. He is said to have hidden in a goose pen as he didn’t wish to be ordained a bishop but the cackling of the geese gave him away. In honor of St. Martin it is customary in Austria to eat goose on November 11 accompanied by red cabbage and dumplings called Knödel in German.
Advent Calendars and Advent wreaths – beginning of December
Advent Calendars count the days from December 1 to 24, Christmas Eve. Each day you open a new window and get a chocolate to the delight of children. My daughter chose a Little Pony Advent calendar this year. Nowadays there are Advent calendars for all tastes and ages. Like these two I found. The first is a Beer Calendar which provides a taste of different international beers. The second offers a variety of alcoholic beverages.
I also saw an Advent Calendar with the 24 windows containing different types of tea.
At this time you also get your 4 candle Advent wreath, representing the four advent sundays until Christmas in anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. Each advent sunday you gather the family around the wreath, light the correspondent candle and sing Christmas carols. It was very touching this year to see the enthusiasm of my daughter singing Christmas carols. Many people do their own wreath, like the one my sister in law prepared and which we lit at my mother in law´s house to celebrate the first Advent sunday. I’m hoping I will be able to design my own next year when I’m more settled.
Christmas markets in Europe are said to date from the Middle ages but those were in fact winter markets where farmers sold their seasonal produce and their handicrafts. It is hard to know exactly when they came into fashion but in Austria it was in the seventies. Since the end of the war, this was the first time Austrians had money to spare.
In the past, as primarily home makers, women did everything themselves. Christmas time particularly, was when they showed their baking skills. In villages, women baked all kinds of Christmas cookies and made their own Christmas decorations. To raise money for the church or other worthy causes a weekly gathering was arranged at the parish where their handicrafts and baking goods were prepared to be sold before Christmas. Fortunately, this tradition is still very much alive.
Now we have the big Christmas markets that sprout a bit everywhere. Only in Vienna there are at least a dozen. Last year I wrote about my favourite markets Karlsplatz, Rathaus and Schoenbrunn. This year I decided to explore a different kind of market.
The Spittelberger Christmas Market located near the first district, spreads charmingly over several streets that showcase the beautiful architecture of Vienna.
Besides the market stalls you can also find small gourmet restaurants and bars. Like this picturesque Punch cellar.
But of course you don’t have to leave the market to have nice Austrian food like these very popular fried potato pancakes
Or this nice deer sausage with horse radish and mustard
In the meantime as it is freezing (my body is still not used to such low temperatures) you may be tempted to buy a fluffy woolen hat or even warm insoles for your shoes.
And of course the great variety of handicrafts but I must confess I have a soft spot for the famous Viennese snow globes
Even if you don’t buy anything, it is just nice to walk around and enjoy the atmosphere …
St. Barbara’s day – December 4
The Turkish martyr saint was kept isolated in a tower by her pagan father to safeguard her virginity until it was time to marry. One day when her father returned from a trip, he discovered a third window had been added to the two window tower. When confronted, St. Barbara confessed she had been baptized in secrecy and had become a Christian. Her decision to add a third window to the tower was to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Her confession was her death sentence. Her father ended up killing her and when he gave her the fatal blow, he was himself killed by a lightning. When she lived in the tower, it is said she kept a branch from a cherry tree that she watered with her cup. The day she died the cherry branch kept blossoming.
It is a custom in Austria to buy branches from cherry trees in the hope they will blossom before the 24th December. In my father in law’s village a blossom meant your daughter or son was getting married. No blossom but beautiful green leaves instead meant your dreams and wishes for the new year would come true. Cherry tree branches are the tradition but branches from hazelnut, walnut, apple and other trees can also be used. You should never worry if there are no blossoms or green leaves, all it means is your life will remain the same.
St. Nicholas day – December 6
Santa Claus was never an Austrian tradition. Instead, it was always Saint Nicholas dressed in his bishop red costume who on the 6 would knock on your door in the company of a very scary character called the Krampus. Krampus was black, looked like the devil and usually carried tree branches that could be used on the children that misbehaved. When St. Nicholas asked the children if they had been good they trembled and he always warned he knew when they lied. If he didn’t believe them he could tell Krampus to spank them. During the interrogation Krampus would make a lot of noise, howling threateningly.
My father in law remembers being scared and telling St. Nicholas he had not helped his mother in the kitchen. Then St. Nicholas would advise him to change his ways or he would be back with Krampus. If St. Nicholas thought the child had been really bad it was possible that he ordered Krampus to hit them slightly with the branches. Trembling the child would promise to be good and then get rewarded with a Saint Nicholas bag. The bag had a chocolate St. Nicholas, a chocolate Krampus, walnuts considered an expensive treat and one or two mandarines, both seasonal winter products.
Now things have changed. They say children can be traumatized by Krampus and his similarity with the devil could offend other religious sensitivities. So at present St. Nicholas appears alone in schools and it is all merry and nice. What has not changed is what you can find in the bag. I’m glad there is a balance and it is not all sugary.
Christmas Eve and Christmas day – December 24 & 25
The most anticipated date! My father in law explained that they would start the day with a big breakfast. There would be plenty to eat, small things like Russian salad, dried meats, bread, Christmas cookies and much more.
By then they would have written their letter to the Christ child who is the one who will bring the presents with the help of his angels on Christmas Eve. If you were too small and did not know how to write, you were told to draw what you wanted. Usually the letter would be prepared on the second sunday of advent and placed on the window sill. The next morning it would have disappeared, a sign that the Christ child had gotten your list and would prepare your presents. It was such an emotion for the child.
On Christmas Eve, the children were impatient for their presents. At around 7 in the evening, when it was already dark, the mother pretended to leave the house to visit a neighbor. In the meantime, the angels and the Christ child were expected to come, decorate the Christmas tree and leave the presents. The unveiling of the Christmas tree was only done on the 24th. Until then the only green in the house was the Advent wreath.
The mother would then lock herself in the living room to decorate the tree and place the presents under the tree. When finished, she would pretend to have returned home from the neighbor’s house and the children would be anxiously asking if they could finally see the tree and the presents.
Patience was demanded as it was explained that the angels and the Christ child needed more time. To distract them they were taken to the window to see if they could spot the angels arriving from heaven. It was then the father’s turn to go into the living room, light the candles and play the bell, the sign the angels gave that all was ready. The children would be so excited and beg the parents to enter the room. Sometimes they were made to wait another couple of minutes to make sure the angels and the Christ child had the time to finish and leave.
Finally, the unveiling of the tree and presents was made. In the tree you could also find edible decorations like nuts, chocolates, little bottles of liquor and you were entitled to sample a few. Until midnight the children played with their new toys. Then the family left to attend the midnight mass and thank the Christ child for the presents received.
On the 25th it was the day to visit the rest of your family. You went from house to house wondering about their Christmas trees, the edible treats you would be allowed to sample and the presents the Child Christ may have left for you.
When I was hearing my father in law speaking about his childhood Christmas experiences with a twinkle in his eyes, I could almost see the excitement in this little boy’s eyes about the tree and what he may find underneath it. We sometimes forget the child we once were still lives inside us. I am very grateful for the time I spent with my father in law talking about these wonderful traditions.
Having lost my father at 17 years old, I sometimes regret I didn’t get to know him better. I regret many questions were left answered because I did not realize at that time we didn’t have so much time. Even with my mother who is fortunately still alive, being in a wheelchair and getting more forgetful with time, I feel I waited too long to know more.
So if there is any wish I have for this Christmas, it is that you sit with your loved ones and ask those questions before it is too late or their memories fade away. You may think you don’t really care or need to know but believe me, the older you get, the more you will want to know. After all this is part of your story too.
Preserve your own traditions, pass them on to your children and never forget where you came from.