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Christmas in Austria: Customs and Traditions

Austria at Christmas time - Customs and traditions which make the country unique in winter.

The Advent season is in full swing, certainly different this year from what we are used to. Nevertheless, the Austrians will not allow themselves to be led astray and will still try to enjoy the Advent and Christmas season as much as possible, naturally complying with all COVID-19 measures.

"Silent Night, Holy Night"

This is one of Austria's biggest export successes. This Christmas song has been translated into 330 languages and is gladly sung by people across the globe. It was written as a poem and message of peace by Joseph Mohr in Oberndorf near Salzburg in the year 1816. In 1818, Franz Gruber composed this simple but catchy melody and "Silent Night, Holy Night" was performed for the first time on 24 December 1818. Starting in Oberndorf, the song spread throughout Austria and subsequently conquered the entire world. Even today, it is an integral part of the holiday songs. It can also be heard time and again on the radio and at Christmas markets.

 Christmas markets

"Christkindlmarkt": this term is what Austrians use when referring to their Christmas markets. They combine regional specialities, homemade delicacies, handmade decorations with an alcoholic drink or two. Austria's Christmas markets offer something to please every taste, whether mulled wine, hot cider or punch. Non-alcoholic beverages, for example the so-called Christmas punch for kids, are also available for consumption. The name already implies that it is somewhat unusual for an adult to enjoy a non-alcoholic drink at a Christmas market in Austria, but it is definitely permitted.
The world's largest, hanging Advent wreath is located at an Austrian Christmas market. This can be found in the Styrian market town of Mariazell. It boasts a diameter of 12 metres and weighs six tonnes. In contrast to the Advent wreath which most families have in their homes, the Advent wreath in Mariazell is oriented to the original Advent wreath as made by Johann Hinrich Wichern and features a total of 24 candles. Beginning on 1 December, one castle is lit in Mariazell each day, symbolically illuminating the dark winter evenings. This is different from most Austrian households, which only have four candles, one of which is lit on every Sunday of Advent. But this explanation still begs the question as to why the Austrians insist on saying "Christkindlmarkt" (literally Christ Child market) and not Christmas market.

Christ Child vs. Santa Claus

Austrian children do not generally believe in Santa Claus, but the so-called Christkindl or Christ Child brings the presents. Christmas wishes are traditionally sent as wish lists in the form of letters. Either the Christ Child picks up the letters directly from people's homes or one can also address the letters to the post office in the Upper Austrian town of Christkindl. The post office is in direct personal contact to the Christ Child but cannot guarantee that all wishes will be fulfilled. Nevertheless, one can be sure that every letter to the Christ Child will be answered. The post office has already existed since the year 1950 and receives some two million letters every year. The Christ Child is usually shown as an angel-like child with blond curls and wings. On Christmas Eve, 24 December, it flies from house to house and sometimes also brings the completely decorated Christmas tree in addition to presents. A bell rings in some households, signalling that it is time to unpack the presents. If the Christ Child himself does not bring the Christmas tree, it is first traditionally set up and decorated on Christmas Eve and remains standing in the Austrian houses until Candlemas on 2 February. In other words, there are definitely several similarities to Santa Claus. However, frequently Santa Claus is confused with a completely different Austrian figure who heralds in Christmas.

 St. Nicholas and Krampus

Similar in looks to Santa Claus, St. Nicholas comes to Austria each year on 6 December and rewards children who were well-behaved all year long with gifts. Contrary to Santa Claus, St. Nicholas does not travel with reindeer but looks for creatures to accompany him who one would best describe to the unknowing as half goat and half demon. These beast-like creatives call themselves the "Krampus" and, in contrast to St. Nicholas, visit those children who did not exhibit their best behaviour during the year. The so-called "Perchten" are easily confused with the Krampus but are definitely not the same. These demonic beings drive away the evil spirits of the winter, and at the same time perhaps some tourists as well. They roam the streets in large groups, fully disguised, equipped with horns, bells, whips and rods, and do not allow anyone or anything hold them back. (Tip: If you do not want to wake up the next day with scratches, bruises or black and blue marks, it may be advisable to hide behind a baby carriage or an expense camera.) The costumes of these Perchten are not only frightening, but they are real works of art. The masks of the Perchten are traditionally hand-carved and cost several thousand euros. Numerous Perchten groups exist in rural areas of Christmas as societies which cultivate this tradition together and pass it on to the next generation.

All in all, there are similarities between the Austrian Advent and Christmas traditions and many well-known, Western customs. Nevertheless, Austria has to be considered as unique in the Advent season. The snow, the mountain panoramas, the illuminated cities and the people who come together to say goodbye to the last weeks of the year.

Austrian Business Agency would like to wish you and your family a peaceful end to the year and a good start to what will hopefully be a successful, new year.

Mariella Mickla, BA

Online Communications & Social Media
+43-1-588 58-461 or +43-676-898590461

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