Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Merry (Austrian) Christmas!
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Over the years, I have spent Christmas at a lot of different places. Anywhere from the US to the Caribbean, to Europe. Lately however, I have been rather particular about celebrating Christmas in Austria. The setting and overall atmosphere is very hard to beat. Like a fairy tale, really. It is quite a bit different from Christmas elsewhere (in particular the US), so let me tell you a little bit about it...
In Austria, the Christmas Season starts with the pre-Christmas period called "Advent". Advent starts 4 Sundays before Christmas (very early this year since Christmas was a Saturday... more about that below). During this period, Christmas markets are open, Christmas decoration is displayed, and in general, everyone tries to be in the Christmas spirit. Christmas-themed plays are arranged by schools and Christmas carols are sung and played just about everywhere. Children have an "Adventkalender". This is a calendar that shows 24 days (December 1st to 24th) and each day one can open a little "door" (each door represents a day). Most Adventkalender have chocolate in each door so they offer a little treat every day up to Christmas. (Adults sometimes use a box of beer the same way...yup, 24 bottles... a little treat for every day in advent...)
If you ever come to Austria (in particular Salzburg or Innsbruck) during Advent, you must visit a Christmas market! Have some chestnuts and some "Gluehwein" and listen to the choir and enjoy yourself. I can not imagine a more peaceful and romantic setting than a Christmas market in Austria.
December 6th is the holiday of "Nikolaus". Nikolaus would be called "Saint Niklaus" in English (I think) and is probably the closest thing we have to Santa Claus. The Nikolaus brings small presents to Children, but only if they were good all year. Typical Nikolaus presents are peanuts and mandarin oranges. I like peanuts ok but never cared for mandarins, so I never had much of a reason to behave. But then on the other hand, the Nikolaus brings along the "Krampus". The Krampus is a bit of an oddity. It originates from a pagan tradition where people dressed up in scary costumes to scare away the bad spirits. Today, the Krampus has its official day on December 5th, and there are lots of events (festivals really) revolving around the Krampus. And then of course the Krampus comes along with the Nikolaus and puts the naughty children in his sack. The Nikolaus does seem to have some power over the Krampus though and even when I had a particular naughty year as a little boy, the Nikolaus always managed to keep the Krampus at bay, although sometimes just barely... ;-)
Here are pictures of Krampus and Nikolaus:
The photos are referenced from www.stoanameapass.at, where you can find more information about this stuff...
The rest of advent is spent with much singing and shopping and lighting up candles on the "Adventskranz". This is a little ring made of evergreen-branches with 4 candles. On the first Sunday of advent, one lights one candle, the next time 2, and so forth. Here's a photo from the wikipedia:
Oh, and we bake and eat Christmas cookies. Tons of them! And hundreds of kinds. Everyone bakes them.
Christmas in Austria (as in much of Europe as far as I know) is on December 24th. We celebrate Christmas Eve here and that's when the big get-together is and when presents are exchanged. (None of that getting-up-early stuff on the 25th! Who ever came up with that nonsense?) There is no Santa Claus either. Instead, we have the "Christkind". The Christkind is basically the little baby Jesus but apparently it must have wings because it mysteriously flies about and brings presents and the Christmas Tree. Usually, a few days before Christmas, one room in the house is locked, because the Christkind is already working on the setup. At that point, one has to be very careful and no matter what happens, do not try to look through the key-hole! Because it scares the Christkind away and one might end up completely without presents!
There is other proof that the Christkind can fly: For instance, when one writes a letter with one's wishes, the letter has to be put on the windowsill and the next time one checks, it is guaranteed to be gone. Even if one lives on the 5th floor! So there can be little doubt about its flying abilities.
The 24th of December is quite the deal. Most people still have to work until noon and all the stores are open until noon or 1pm. Then, there is the traditional lunch on the 24th. There seems to be much argument about what is to be eaten for lunch. The 24th is a day of fasting up until dinner (whenever one has dinner), so lunch can not be too festive. There seem to be many different versions of what is to be consumed. Most of them are wrong however, so you are lucky to have come to the right blog to find out what to eat: Lunch on the 24th has to be "Bachikoch". This is a rather nasty stew made out of milk and flower. Poor people's food, basically, although there can be some applesauce on top of it. Ellen says she couldn't imagine Christmas without it.
The evening is rather different though and we have an opulent meal. We like to have various cold delicacies such as French pate, beef tartar (it is completely safe to consume raw beef here due to food preparation laws here... even though it freaks Ellen out), cold cuts, various salads, shrimp, and much much more. (Other families have completely different dinners and - unlike lunch - that is OK). I do not remember Christmas in Austria without having gotten completely stuffed! (This is much needed after the Bachikoch too...).
Then, after dinner, everyone waits for the big moment when the Christkind indicates that it is ready and everyone can enter the room. This is indicated by the ringing of a little bell. Sometimes, when one is especially lucky, the Christkind has to leave the room in such a hurry before everyone enters (because it can never be seen by mortals!), that it loses the bell, which can then be found under the Christmas Tree. But that doesn't happen very often.
As mentioned above, the Christkind brings all the gifts as well as the tree. There is no tree here before Christmas. And we... I mean, the Christkind... lights the candles for real. We can do that, because our houses are made out of concrete rather than tinder. (It freaks Ellen out too, but not as bad as it used to). And no matter what people (Ellen) will tell you, our trees do not resemble "Charlie Brown trees" even remotely. Here is a picture of the tree we have this year:
Check out all these presents! Proves that we all have been very good this year. (And consider the aerodynamic attributes the Christkind must have to carry all this!)
Traditionally, there also is a midnight mass, although I noticed that this year, they had it at 11pm. I guess nobody showed up at midnight anymore. I remember going to midnight mass once when I was a teenager. The priest was completely shitfaced. It wasn't very Chistmas'y. Overall, I think as a generalization it is safe to say that nobody goes to midnight mass. Christmas here is like a lot of things in Europe: Inspired by religion, but then the religious parts were eliminated a while back.
Then of course, there is the 25th of December. It is referred to as "Christmas Day". (When people here say "Christmas", they always refer to the 24th). This is when we get together with relatives or friends and have yet another large meal. Usually Fondue in our case. There really is a lot of eating at Christmas, but hey, one gotta work hard for traditional values and to keep the Christkind happy!
Then, Christmas is over, but in a way, it lives on. Most people have a few days (maybe even the entire week) off, and there are Christmas trees everywhere. And the fact that snow is almost guaranteed at Christmas makes it easy to stay in the Christmas spirit. And there are cookies left!
Posted @ 2:18 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)