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CHRISTMAS

How to celebrate Christmas like an Austrian

Most countries have their own Christmas traditions and Austria is no different. Here’s how to celebrate Christmas like an Austrian, even in pandemic times.

Advent wreath
Making an advent wreath at home and lighting the candles each week is one festive tradition you can follow even in a pandemic. Photo: Hilary Ungson/Unsplash

Light advent candles

Advent is an important season in Austrian culture and serves as a countdown to Weihnachten (Christmas). It begins four weeks before Christmas and traditionally involves lighting a new candle every Sunday during the evening meal.

During this time, no respectable Austrian living room is without an advent wreath, woven from evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and four candles. 

For anyone looking for a very lockdown-friendly way to celebrate Christmas like an Austrian, this is it.

Bake Christmas cookies

Christmas isn’t Christmas in Austria without a selection of cookies or Kekse – special festive biscuits that start appearing in every household and workplace from early December, or even late November.

The most popular are Vanillekipferl (crescent shaped biscuits), jam-filled Spitzbuben (rascals) or spiced ginger Lebkuchen

The traditional way to enjoy Kekse is by baking your own. However, if baking is not your forte, or you simply don’t have time, then Christmas cookies can be bought in most Austrian supermarkets and bakeries.

READ MORE: Posting Christmas presents from Austria? Here’s what you need to know

Roast chestnuts

Roasting chestnuts, known as Kastanien or Maronen in German, is a traditional part of Christmas in Austria.

The best way to enjoy chestnuts is by roasting them over an open fire (just like the song by Nat King Cole) at a festive outdoor get-together in the snow.

But in these pandemic times, using a regular oven in the comfort of your own home is a safer alternative.

Get a real Christmas tree

Plastic trees are not as popular in Austria compared to other countries and most families like to have a real fir tree. 

The traditional way to decorate a Christmas tree is with real candles, but this could be a fire hazard so we recommend plug-in fairy lights instead.

Trees tend to go up in the home around a week before Christmas, although some trees will start appearing on balconies from the first Sunday of Advent.

Visit Christmas markets (when not in lockdown)

Austria’s Christmas markets are famous across the world and Vienna’s biggest market on Rathausplatz can be traced back to the year 1298. 

Almost every small town has its own Christmas or Advent market, and most of them will sell quality handmade products and crafts – rather than cheap tat. They are also a place to meet friends and drink Glühwein (mulled wine) or fruit Punsch, and munch on Lebkuchen, roasted almonds and chestnuts.

As Austria is in its fourth national lockdown (currently until December 12th) it’s unknown if the markets will actually operate during Christmas this year. But if they do, here’s a guide to the best Christmas markets across the country.

Celebrate on Christmas Eve

For most people from English-speaking countries, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th with a decadent lunch of roasted turkey or ham. 

In Austria though, the main celebrations take place on the evening of December 24th, usually by gathering with friends and family for a meal. This is also when presents are exchanged.

Some traditional Austrian Christmas foods to enjoy on December 24th include fried carp, roasted goose, red cabbage, fondue or Bratwurst (roasted sausages) with sauerkraut.

FOR MEMBERS: Everything that changes in Austria in December 2021

Smoke out the evil spirits

The 12 nights of Christmas (from December 24th to January 5th) are known as the Rauhnächte in Austria when some people burn incense and spread the scent around the house. 

This is meant to keep evil spirits and misfortune away from the house and family. The most important Rauhnächte are December 21st, 24th and 31st and January 5th or 6th (Epiphany).

The most common incense to use are sage, frankincense, juniper or myrrh.

Predict the future on New Years Eve

Another ancient ritual that is still celebrated today in Austria is Bleigiessen – although the origins are believed to come from Greece.

Bleigiessen involves placing metal (traditionally tin or lead) in a large spoon and melting it over a candle. The liquid is then dropped into a bowl of water and the shape is used to predict what the next year might hold.

This typically takes place on Sylvester – the Austrian name for New Years Eve.

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LIVING IN AUSTRIA

Eight habits that show you’ve embraced life in Austria

Living anywhere as an international resident will have an impact on your life, but if you recognise any of these habits then you have truly embraced the Austrian lifestyle.

Eight habits that show you’ve embraced life in Austria

Life in Austria can be similar to many other European countries, but there are some aspects that are distinctly Austrian.

Here are eight habits that show you’ve integrated into the Austrian way of life.

FOR MEMBERS: 23 essential articles to help you navigate life in Austria

Indulging in coffee and cake

Coffee and cake is almost as integral to the food culture in Austria as the Wiener Schnitzel.

So say goodbye to the diet, ignore any thoughts of guilt and get stuck into a slice of Sachertorte, Punschkrapfen or Linzer Torte

Preferably with a delicious coffee on the side.

READ MORE: Caffeine, war and Freud: A history of Vienna’s iconic coffee houses

Participating in winter sports

Austria, especially the west of the country, is a winter sports enthusiasts dream.

The Alps offer an almost endless choice in ski resorts, gondolas and mountain huts, with winter sports options ranging from skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing and Langlaufen (cross-country skiing).

Needless to say, if you live in the Alps, winter sports quickly become a central part of the lifestyle during the cold months. After all, it’s healthy, fun and even a bit dangerous (if that’s your thing).

It’s also a great way to explore the landscape of Austria and get a deeper understanding of the central role of winter sports in Austrian culture.

Downing tools for lunch

Lunch in some other countries (especially places like the UK) is often a sad sandwich while sitting at a desk. 

In Austria however, lunch is an important part of the day and many people sit down at midday with their colleagues or families to enjoy a proper cooked meal.

This is a prime example of the healthy work-life balance that residents in Austria enjoy, and is a much-better habit to embrace than working through a lunch break.

Wearing house shoes

In most Austrian households, people do not wear outdoor shoes inside. Instead, they opt for house shoes, otherwise known as slippers in English or Schlapfen in some Austrian dialects.

Also, many Austrian homes do not have carpet on the floor, which means walking around with bare feet or just socks in the winter can get cold – fast.

So if you’ve invested in a pair of house shoes or, even better, you have a backup supply for guests, then you have fully embraced life in Austria. 

READ ALSO: ‘I’ll probably return to the UK’: Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

Being punctual

Typically, Austrians are punctual people and don’t appreciate lateness.

For this reason, many international residents make an extra effort to be on time (or early), and it’s not uncommon to become stressed if you know you will be five minutes late.

As frustrating as this can be, it’s actually incredibly polite to be early for a meeting and not a bad habit to pick up.

sparkling water

(Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)

Drinking sparkling water

People like to drink sparkling mineral water in Austria.

In fact, sparkling water is so popular that if you order a Mineralwasser (mineral water) in a cafe or restaurant, the sparkling variety is often served unless stilles Wasser (still water) is specified.

Want to be more Austrian? Then simply switch from still to sparkling water.

Stripping off

Countries in Central Europe are much more comfortable with nudity than other nations, and it’s no different in Austria.

The main place to expect an encounter with naked people in Austria is at the sauna. There are even some saunas that have a naked-only admission policy and won’t let people in if they are wearing swimming gear.

People also like to get naked at lakes – especially at the more remote or quieter locations – or at least go topless (for the women). 

The reality is, no one bats an eyelid. So put your prudish instincts aside and don’t be afraid to strip off.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on working overtime in Austria?

Taking sick leave

Employees in Austria are entitled to six weeks of paid sick leave (the number of weeks increases the longer the worker has been employed in the same company).

This means workers are more likely to take sick leave if they are unwell, rather than dragging themselves into the workplace and infecting their colleagues.

The downside though is that Austria has strict rules when it comes to taking sick leave with explicit orders to stay at home. Workers can even expect to be monitored by private detectives to make sure they really are resting at home, as reported by The Local.

For international residents in Austria, this can be hard to tolerate. But the upside is that you’re not expected to show your face in the office when sick, simply to comply with a culture of presenteeism.

And that’s a habit worth embracing.

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