Christmas in Austria

by Bill Egan, Christmas Historian © 1999

A wide variety of holiday concerts are available to tourists visiting Austria during the holiday season. This is to be expected in a land that gave rise to the musical genius of Wolfgang Mozart, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr. and Franz Schubert. Concert venues range from magnificent castles and fortresses to cruise boats on the Danube and a tiny chapel along the Salzach River.

The hottest ticket in Salzburg is for "Salzburger Adventsingen," a program of Advent music and folk lore which began more than a half century ago. With close to 100,000 ticket requests each year, only 30,000 will be lucky enough to gain admission. Still, there are dozens of other concerts to be heard each week during the Advent, Christmas, and New Year season.

Some of the most delightful are the candlelight concerts in the Hohensalzburg Fortress overlooking the city. If you´re lucky you may hear the unusual "Concerto for Strings and Alpenhorn" by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang´s father. Just be sure that you are not sitting in the front row where you will find several alpenhorns extending right off the stage. Other holiday concerts are held at the Mozarteum, at the outdoor Christmas Market, and in various churches and concert halls throughout the city.

Just outside Salzburg, on December 24, a torchlight and lantern procession will move from the Franz Gruber School in Arnsdorf to the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf. You can join the procession and even sing the carols with people from all over the world who flock to the birthplace of the world´s best known Christmas carol, "Silent Night."

The Advent concert series in Innsbruck features groups of family singers and instrumentalists similar to the Trapp Family Singers of "Sound of Music" fame. In Austria, it´s not at all unusual to find families who play music, everything from classical to folk melodies, in their leisure hours. When they come together in concert at Innsbruck's Congress Hall, it becomes a memorable occasion.

Meanwhile in Vienna, choirs from around the world present traditional and modern Christmas songs and folk music in the ceremonial rooms of the Vienna City Hall on weekends in November and December as part of a yearly international choral festival.

The fact is, every village, every hamlet, and every city in Austria will be filled with the glorious sounds of the holiday season throughout November and December. It is truly the land of the "Sound of Music."

The approach of Christmas in Austria is a time of thoughtful preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus. Austria is a predominantly Catholic country, and many Austrians observe Advent as a solemn season of preparation for Christmas. As the first Sunday in Advent approaches, many families make or purchase an Adventkranz, or Advent wreath - a wreath of fir or spruce, decorated with four candles which are lit successively on the four Sundays before December 24.

December 5, is known as Krampus Day. Krampus is an evil spirit usually clad in frightening fur. He has a long red tongue, bulging eyes and makes a loud racket with huge cowbells and rattling chains.

On Krampus Day, children and adults go together to the village to throw snowballs at this menacing figure. In Salzburg, there is a Krampus run through the streets of the city. But this is all done in fun, with much teasing and poking and laughter. Krampus' purpose is simply to remind children to be good.

St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, is widely honored throughout the country. He is an ancestor of Santa Claus and a relative of Father Christmas, but in Austria he appears on his feast day, December 6, a holiday separate from Christmas. He traditionally wears a flowing robe and a tall bishop's miter and he carries a shepherd's staff and a thick book in which the good and bad deeds of the children are recorded.

In Austria the Christkindl is the star of the season. It is he who brings the children their presents on Christmas Eve. The Christkindl also decorates the tree, with occasional assistance from mother, father, or other adults in the family. Everywhere there are clues that the Christkindl and its angelic helpers were here such as the locked door to the living room. Austrian children do not see the decorated tree until Christmas Eve.

One of the first signs that Christmas and the Christkindl are on their way is the appearance of the Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market. Early in December these Christmas markets open in towns and cities all over Austria, with rows of booths and stalls selling colorful ornaments and decorations, gingerbread, Advent wreaths, candles, small gifts, and even Christmas trees.

It's easy to work up an appetite at a Christkindlmarkt, especially when vendors offer pretzels, sausage, paper cones filled with roasted chestnuts, and hot spiced wine. Other booths sell Christmas candies, sweets and cookies.

Nearly every church and most families in Austria have a Krippe or crèche, with miniature figures of the newborn Christ child and his parents. A Krippe may have only a few figures, perhaps the Holy Family and a few animals. But other families display very elaborate scenes, with dozens of hand-carved shepherds, animals, and other figures. Some families keep adding new characters and scenery each year, especially if an uncle, grandfather or other family member is a talented woodcarver. Often these crèches are hundreds of years old, treasured heirlooms handed down from one generation to the next. The Krippe may be set up before Christmas Eve, especially if it is an elaborate one. But Christkindl is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve.

The evening of the 24th, Christmas Eve, is the traditional time to exchange gifts with family and friends. Shops close by 6 p.m. as Austrian families enter the final stages of preparation for Christkindl's arrival. For the children the excitement is almost unbearable.

Finally, the children hear the tinkling bell that summons them to the Christmas room. There, for the first time that season, they witness Christkindl's handiwork. There is the tree, with dozens of real candles, sparklers, silver ornaments and candy, in all its splendor. Each year's Weihnachtsbaum seems to be the most magical ever. Often children's homemade ornaments and other hand-crafted decorations have been treasured for generations. Silver and gold garlands crisscross the tree. In a few Austrian homes the wax candles have been replaced by electric lights, but most Austrians would never dream of lighting their own trees with anything other than the traditional Christmas candles.

Everyone gathers around the Tannenbaum and sings Christmas carols with special emphasis given "Silent Night, Holy Night." In other countries, this carol may be played during the weeks before Christmas, but in Austria "Silent Night" is heard on the radio for the first time on Christmas Eve and repeated hourly. The effect is spellbinding.

As midnight approaches, the grown-ups and the older children go to the traditional Mitternachtsmesse, the Midnight High Mass. In many churches, trumpeters climb up the church towers and trumpet forth Christmas music to call the faithful to worship. The Turmblasen (brass instruments playing chorale music from the city tower or steeple of the main church) is a traditional feature of Christmas Eve. Often the service features music written by Franz Gruber, the composer of "Silent Night" who also wrote nearly 100 Masses, hymns and carols.

Christmas Day, December 25th, is one of quiet celebration and happy reunions with relatives and friends. December 26, St. Stephen's Day, is a legal holiday from work and school, a day set aside for visiting.

Many Austrian families keep their Christmas tree until Epiphany, January 6. Epiphany remembers the Three Wise Men from the East who were looking for the newly-born Christ. Boys and girls in oriental costumes, the Sternsinger, move from house to house, singing traditional songs and receiving small gifts and money.

They carry a lighted "Star of Bethlehem" lantern, which guides them along the way. On this occasion people chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men: C (Casper) + M (Melchior) + B (Balthasar) on the transoms of their doorways.

With the passing of the Epiphany, the pre-Christmas and Christmas season has run full circle. A circle which, in spite of incursions by modern mass media and sometimes blatant commercialism, is still intact in many parts of Austria, making it the most inspiring and fulfilling time of the year.

Song: Leise rieselt der Schnee
The Snow Falls Softly

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© 1999-2002 by W. C. Egan