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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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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

Austrian Christmas traditions: The festive dates you need to know

Catholics celebrate the first Sunday of Advent this weekend, and Austrians are ready for the season with crowns, demon-like creatures lurking, and a winged baby that brings children toys.

Austrian Christmas traditions: The festive dates you need to know

The Christmas season is definitely full of events in Austria, a country where 55.2 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, according to Statistik Austria data from 2021. The season starts early, as Christmas markets open by mid-November, and lasts until January 6th, when Austrians traditionally bring down their season decorations.

There are also many specific dates and local traditions that can seem endearing or absolutely terrifying. For example, in early December, a nice man with a white beard brings tangerines and chocolates to good children. 

But before he does, his “assistant”, a nightmarish creature with horns and carrying around loud chains named Krampus, goes to the houses of children who misbehave.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: A guide to the main Christmas Markets in Austria

Christmas markets are open to all from mid (sometimes early) November, and Austrians traditionally flock to the spots for their yearly share of glühwein, punsch and typical food. The cities also light up with Christmas lights and decorations, and the season is one of the best for Austrian tourism, especially in the capital Vienna. You can see HERE a list of all the Viennese Christmas markets in 2022.

Don’t want to miss out on any traditions? Here are the dates for the Austrian Christmas season:

Advent Sundays (November 27th)

The fourth Sunday before Christmas is also known as the first Advent Sunday – it starts the “season of Advent” (or the season of “Arrival”) and many Austrian Christmas traditions.

This year, the first Advent Sunday is on November 27th.

Austrians will typically celebrate by baking Christmas biscuits and cookies, putting up some decorations and, most notably, preparing an Advent wreath (Adventkranz) that will hold the four candles of Advent. 

Then, every Sunday until Christmas, a new candle will be lit, counting down the time until Christmas. Some families will join in a celebratory meal and might even sing carols (including Silent Night which is actually Austrian).

Adventskalender (December 1st)

Another way of counting down the days until Christmas is with the traditional Adventskalender – those can start on the first Sunday of Advent. However, the commercial ones are typically from December 1st until December 25th.

There are countless calendars for sale and usually, for each day, the person gets a typical “present” that the person receives. Usually, it’s chocolates or sweets (more religious ones will contain a bible verse or a prayer), but nowadays, you can find Adventskalender of almost any theme – including for dogs.

READ ALSO: Eight unmissable Christmas experiences in Austria

Barbarazweig (December 4th)

On December 4th, Austrians celebrate St Barbara’s Day or Barbaratag. In 2022, the date also falls on an Advent Sunday. 

For Barbaratag, some people in Austria will cut small twigs and sticks from cherry trees or forsythias to decorate a vase at home. There is a superstition that if the twig blossoms before Christmas, the family will have good luck or someone will get married. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is travelling to Austria this winter worth it?

Participants wearing masks featuring the character of “Krampus”, a half-goat, half-demon figure punishing misbehaving children during the Christmas season. (Photo by Peter Kneffel / dpa / AFP)

Krampus (December 5th)

This might be one of the most unusual and surprising traditions (if you have never seen it before, that is). On December 5th, a horned, scary anthropomorphic devil creature visits the homes of Austrians and scares children who weren’t good kids during the year. They are also said to scare away the dark spirits of winter and are a very traditional part of local folk customs.

There are many Krampuslaufen (a sort of Krampus parade) in Austria – not all on December 5th. In them, people dress up as the demonic entity with chains and torches. 

READ ALSO: German Advent word of the day: Der Krampus

Nikolaus

Krampus is actually a companion to the much more friendly St. Nicholas, an entity that looks quite a lot like Santa Claus. 

St. Nicholas comes during the night of the 5th to 6th of December and rewards the well-behaved children with tangerines, sweets and peanuts. This is why your Austrian neighbours might leave their boots outside on that evening – Nikolaus fills them up with gifts and sweets. 

He has a long white beard and wears a religious vestment that is white and red, similar to a bishop’s vest.

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

Christmas Eve and Christkind (December 24th)

If you think a lot has happened already, then imagine Christmas Eve. This is when the actual celebrations happen (not on the 25th). The shops will close early, and families will gather to decorate the Christmas tree – yes, it’s not uncommon for Austrians to follow this tradition of only decorating the tree on December 24th.

They also meet for Christmas eve dinner, which can vary greatly depending on family traditions and Austrian regions. From raclette to roasted geese or cold meats, much can be served during the evening. 

Another thing that might sound strange to foreigners is that there is no Santa Claus or Father Christmas in Austria. Instead, it is the “Christkind” (literally Christ Child, or baby Jesus) who brings the presents on Christmas eve.

READ ALSO: Where to find international food in Austria this Christmas

He looks much like a Cherubin and the children are told that he brings the presents, rings a bell and lights up the Christmas tree. 

The whole experience may seem curious to those watching for the first time: kids are lured into a separate room and the adults run to get gifts from the secret hiding places, set up the scene, turn on the tree lights and turn off other lights. Some then ring a small bell and the children are surprised to learn that they barely missed the winged baby who brought all the gifts.  

Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day (December 25th and 26th)

Though the evening before Christmas is the most important, Austrians continue to meet up during the next day and the 26th. 

Lunches and dinners are shared with loved ones and there is some more gift exchanging during those days. If they live in the mountains, they might go skiing on Christmas Day and later, as well.

READ ALSO: How to save money and still go skiing in Austria

Three wise men tree ornament

Epiphany is when the three wise men find Jesus in the stable. Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

Three Wise Kings Day (January 6th)

Finally, the Christmas tree and the decorations are left until January 6th. In Catholic belief, this is when the three wise kings came to visit baby Jesus with presents. 

Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar might literally visit Austrian homes. They then leave their mark: their initials and the year written in chalk above the house door, the K + M + B sign that is often seen by the doors of people in Austria.

January 6th is also Christmas eve for Orthodox believers and is celebrated by many people in Austria.

Austria is a small but very diverse country with countless traditions, especially during Christmas time. Did we miss your favourite one? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected] or leaving a comment.

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