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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

Austrian traditions: How to celebrate St. Martin’s Day in Austria

Austrians celebrate St. Martin's Day, also known as Martinstag, even if it is not an official bank holiday. From traditional food to parades, here's how to enjoy the day.

Austrian traditions: How to celebrate St. Martin's Day in Austria
Traditional roast goose legs with stewed red cabbage are served during celebrations of Saint Martin's Day. (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

Austria is a very catholic country and several important dates for the church are official bank holidays. However, even the dates that are not holidays are still often celebrated by the population – even if just by preparing a traditional meal.

Martinstag, or St. Martin’s Day, is one of those dates that people don’t get off from work, but still, many Austrians will commemorate every November 11th. 

Who was Saint Martin?

According to Catholic tradition, Saint Martin of Tours was a “conscientious objector who wanted to be a monk; a monk who was manoeuvred into being a bishop; a bishop who fought paganism as well as pleaded for mercy to heretics”. 

As the legend goes, Saint Martin, a Roman soldier, gave a beggar half his red cloak to protect him during a snowstorm. 

READ ALSO: Five things you will find in (almost) every Austrian home

Through this good deed, Saint Martin is considered the patron saint of travellers and the poor and is seen as an example to children to share and be giving.

One legend has it that he hid in a goose stall when he was summoned by the church to become a bishop, as he felt unworthy. But the geese cackled so loudly that Martin was found – and now geese are eaten on his name day.

How is the date celebrated?

The main festivities revolve around the evening meal; traditionally, Martinigansl goose often served with cabbage and dumplings.

Mid-November was the time of year when farmers completed their autumn wheat seeding and slaughtered the fattened cattle before the winter.

READ ALSO: COMPARE: How do Austria’s public holidays stack up against the rest of Europe?

But across Austria, St Martin’s Day, and the weeks leading up to it, is marked by eating Martinigansl – roasted goose served with aromatic chestnuts, red cabbage and fluffy bread dumplings. The meal is just as important for some people as Easter and Christmas dinners.

Traditionally, the day is also the occasion for naming the year’s new wine. Therefore, it has special significance for the wine regions and villages in Burgenland around Lake Neusiedl.

Where can I try the traditional meal?

If you’re planning to try Martinigansl in Vienna, the Kurier newspaper recommends Rudi’s Beisl in the 5th district. Their goose is served with red cabbage, white cabbage and potato or bread dumplings for €29.90.

If you don’t eat meat, you could try the ‘goose’ at Cafe Harvest, Vienna’s second district. It’s made from soy fillets and served along with red cabbage and potato dumplings. It’s already available for €17.80.

READ ALSO: Vienna Christmas Markets: Here are the dates and locations for 2022

A goose broth with baked Kaiserschöberl croutons is followed by free-range goose breast with goose praline, red cabbage, and Waldviertel dumplings. Dessert is a sweet baked apple served with gingerbread foam. 

Mahlzeit!

The St. Martins procession

In parts of Austria, children celebrate Martinstag by carrying paper lanterns they have made in school in an evening procession. In some places, the lantern procession ends with a Martinsfeuer (bonfire).

“Der Laternenumzug”, or lantern procession, is an annual celebration in honour of St. Martin’s Day. 

However, while St. Martin’s Day is an occasion celebrated by Catholics across Europe, including the UK, this children’s tradition seems to only be commonplace in German-speaking regions (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and some areas of Belgium, Italy and Poland).

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Der Laternenumzug

The procession is usually organised through local kindergartens and schools, and the children themselves often make the lanterns during their classes. The children are often accompanied by a man dressed as St. Martin in his iconic red cloak.

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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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