The Advent wreath. Advent begins on the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Eve. On this day no respectable Austrian living room is without an advent wreath, woven from evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and four candles. (Originally there were 24 candles on each wreath, but this probably became a fire hazard). On each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, one more candle on the wreath is lit at dinnertime.
Barbara twigs. December 4th is Barbaratag and is dedicated to St Barbara. Some Austrians cut small twigs from cherry trees or forsythias on this day and place them in a vase in the house. If the twig blossoms by Christmas Eve, it is seen as a sign of good luck and health for the following year. In some regions it also means that a member of your family is going to get married.
Christmas markets. These are a typical Austrian tradition. Vienna’s biggest Christmas 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 and roasted almonds and chestnuts.
Cookies. Austrians are fans of cookies and cakes all year round, but at Christmas it’s traditional to bake your own. The most popular are Vanillekipferl, jam-filled Spitzbuben (rascals) or spiced ginger Lebkuchen.
Smoking nights. The 12 nights around Christmas (from the 24th December to 5th January) are known as the Rauhnächte. On those nights some people will burn a mixture of incense and palm branches from Easter 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.
The tree. The Christmas tree still has an important role in the festive season. Every town sets up its own huge tree on the main square. Most families choose to have a real fir tree, and not a plastic one, and decorate it tastefully with gold, silver and wooden ornaments – as well as real candles which of course when lit are never left unattended.
St. Nikolaus. He brings gifts for good children on December 6th. If you have young neighbours you might have noticed some boots left outside their front door (Nikolaus-Stiefel) on the night of December 5th. And if the children have been brav (well-behaved) they will discover that the boots have been filled the next day with gifts and sweets. St. Nikolaus impersonators are often dressed like bishops, and sometimes ride a horse. America’s Santa Claus and Britain’s Father Christmas derive in part from St. Nicholas, although they are associated with Christmas Day.
Krampus. This hairy half-goat, half-demon figure carrying chains or twigs is a common sight in Alpine towns before Christmas. He’s a companion of St. Nikolaus and is meant to punish any children who have misbehaved. Particularly naughty children are warned that they’ll be bundled into Krampus’ sack and taken to his lair. You’ll see young men dressed as Krampus in traditional events such as Krampuslauf on or around December 5th.
Christkind. Austrian children are told that the Christkind (the Christ child, a blonde winged angel-like figure) brings them their presents as a reward for good behaviour, and even decorates the Christmas tree. Children write their letters and wish lists to the Christkind, and not Santa Claus, in the weeks before Christmas. The arrival and departure of the Christkind is often signalled by ringing a small bell, and some parents will open a window to let the Christkind fly in.
Christmas Eve. This is the day when the real celebrations happen in Austria, not on the 25th. Most shops close early on this day, the lights or candles on the tree are lit for the first time and families gather round to sing carols. Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which was written and performed for the first time in 1818 in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, is still most people’s favourite carol.
Sylvester. On New Year’s Eve, Vienna’s entire city centre becomes one big celebration. The Sylvesterpfad (New Year’s Path) starts at 2pm on December 31st and ends at 2am on January 1st. People dance to the sound of the waltz and watch some of the loudest and brightest fireworks displays of any European city. At the stroke of midnight all church bells throughout the country ring in the New Year, and in the larger cities people dance in the streets to the famous Blue Danube waltz.
Bleigiessen. This ancient ritual has its roots in classical Greece. Many Austrians buy little packages of tin or lead from the Christmas markets. Placing the metal in a large spoon, they melt it to a liquid which is then dropped into a bowl of water. The shape the molten metal makes is then used to predict what the New Year may hold.