Saint Nikolaus, Christmas, New Year; December is full of traditions and cultural events in Austria. Check out the Austrian Cultural Calendar for the last month of this year.
1.12. – Advent Calendar
To shorten the long days before Christmas, Austrians tend to give their one themed calendars with 24 little presents, one for each new day. Hereby, the variation ranges from standard commercial calendars filled with chocolate to hand-crafted and extraordinary calendars, like favourite quotes, poems, or love letters packed in 24 socks; the creativity has no limits here!
Besides individuals, many companies provide an advent calendar with special offers each new day.
~ 3.12. – Advent Wreath
Advent is deriving from the Latin words “ad-venire” meaning “to arrive”. In the period before Jesus arrived in this world, we set up four candles resembling the four weeks of the advent. On the first Sunday, four weeks before Christmas we light the first candle. On the second we light two candles until on the last weekend the whole room is lighted by four candles burning on the advent wreath. While the candles are lit, the family gathers together to be humble together, being grateful for what they have and who the can spend time with.
In our gatherings, I mutated to be a short storyteller, each time with another self-made story about the values we want to live by in this period before Christmas. When you want, I can post my stories here as well.
5.12. – Perchten + Krampus
Already mentioned in 500 AD, Perchten are one of the oldest, still present traditions in Austria and Southern Germany. Here, people dress up as fierce monsters with horns and march loudly through the streets. Armed with noisy bells they try to expel the bad ghosts of winter in the time before and after Christmas, but not only ghosts are afraid of those beast roaming through the cities.
In Austria, there are many Perchten clubs that battle in a competition for the best looking costumes and performance in ghost fraying.
For some, the Perchten embody the Krampus, a beastly being who takes naughty children and puts them in a cauldron on the 5th of December. This Krampus is the long-time companion of Saint Nikolaus.
6.12. – Saint Nikolaus
Nikolaus from Myra was a Turkish bishop and one of the most known saints in the eastern and Latin church. Around 300AD he performed a series of wonders and gained a lot of credits by the mighty one. However, there are many traditions settled around him. Saint Nikolaus is visiting homes, kindergartens, schools and malls, asking children whether they had been nice and humble this year. The kids have to recite a poem for Nikolaus to express how good they have been. Once performed, Nikolaus gives them small presents like oranges, nuts and chocolate away in small bags out of his big gift sack.
Sound familiar? Yes. The one and only Santa Claus is a modification of Saint Nikolaus brought to the US by the settlers, where over time, it was taken over and shaped by corporate design.
Nikolaus is also attending the Perchten marches and watches them not to harm any innocent person but only ghosts since they embody his good and gruesome pal Krampus.
7.12. – Writing the Christmas Letter
Other than then modern Christmas interpretation of a man in a red robe, Austrians traditionally believe that the Christ-child in form of a little angel is bringing the presents on Christmas eve. Thus children write a letter to baby Jesus to express their wishes for this year, after some formal justification that they deserve presents. Done with writing, kids place the letters outside on the window so the Christ child can pick it up while flying by.
Another possibility is to go to the official Christ child post office, where you can give the letter to one of the Jesus representatives, or interns. In Upper Austria, the post office is located in a small township near Steyr called Christkindl, literally Christ child.
8.12. – Maria Conception
On this day Austrians celebrate the conception of Maria, the holy mother, by her mother, which makes her mother the holy grandmother, unofficially. We solemnize this merry fertilization of her mother Anna by Joachim, her father, that led to Maria being preserved from the original sin, by having a day off. But only office jobs. Most of the shopping malls open their gates and make the biggest business on this day.
~ 14.12. – Christmas Markets
In whole Austria and other countries in Europe and the world, the smell of Christmas is in the air when you are near one of the countless Christmas markets. These seasonal markets are a delight for the eyes, ears and tongue. You can shop for Christmas gifts in various booths, eat traditional dishes like sausages with sauerkraut, raclette cheese on bread, baked potatoes, hot nuts, farmer dumplings (Bauernkrapfen) and other delicious food.
The most consumed goods, however, are the alcoholic beverages. From the middle of November until Christmas people gather together to drink Hot Wine, Hot Cider, and Punch in various flavours and alcohol levels. Getting tipsy had never been so justified because as the temperature gets slowly below 0 and snow is falling there is nothing better to warm you from the inside than 10% of Russian Orange punch.
~ 16.12. – Christmas Parties
To celebrate a successful year, meeting old friends or gather together for one last time before Christmas, many people celebrate Christmas parties. Here, you mostly meet, eat together, talk informal and then you drink together and talk in alcohol caused opaque ways. This year I got invited to 5 Christmas parties where I only could attend four. I met with my former colleagues from a previous job, the manly man with my cousin and friends, my former high school class and my current work with all colleagues.
~ 18.12. – Buying the Christmas Tree
Aliens would wonder why humans decorate the corpse of a plant with lights and chocolate to put presents for the kids there. However, we love Christmas trees! We even have a song about them called “Oh Tannenbaum!”. To get the tree into your house there are many options. First is to have an artificial one at home. The second and more exciting one is to go real Christmas tree shopping. Here in Austria, you have many merchants who sell on trees in various forms and heights on their outside space. I loved to go this kind of shopping when I was younger. You walk around and look at the trees, look the way they grew, the position and density of their branches and many other factors. In the end, you pick the tree and transport it home.
You don’t know how often I miscalculated the height of the chosen tree and we had to shorten it, to erect in the flat.
24.12. – Christmas eve
This merry holyday/holiday would deserve or need an independent because there are so many traditions and different customs. So I just tell what I do most of the times. The 24th of December is a normal day until 15 o’clock. There, we erect the tree in the flat and start to decorate it. Around 17 o’clock we start the Christmas celebration, where we hear the timid bell of the Christ child bringing the presents, laying under the tree. We then sing classics like “Silent Night, Holy Night”, which origins from Austria, “Es wird sho glei dumpa” and others. We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and give away the presents.
Afterwards, we sit together to eat. We are used to eating Raclette. It is a combination of BBQ on top with vegetables, sausages and meat, and frying cheese on the lower level of the machine. When we are all full we start to play with the presents we got or watch a movie together, before we start the second round of eating. This circle is to be repeated until you fall into a food coma.
At late night is the midnight mass in the church, but I mostly got knocked out by my digesting system before the ceremony even starts.
25.12. & 26. 12. – Still Christmas
For most families, Christmas is not only celebrated once. My family is quite big, so we celebrate up to five times, every time with another branch of the family. There it is almost similar than on the 24th but with some minor modifications, like meeting in the afternoon for coffee and sweets and don’t eat too much dinner. Christmas is a period for family gatherings and I really appreciate to see my relatives for this holy days.
~ 30.12. – Buying Lucky Charms
The end of the year is slowly approaching and you want to give your family and friends a charm that will bring them luck in the next year. These lucky symbols are pigs, four-leafed shamrocks, horseshoes, ladybugs, toadstools and chimney sweep. There are countless little booths appearing in each neighbourhood to sell you those little figures and fireworks for a perfect ending of an old and starting of a new year.
31.12. – New Year’s Eve
An Austrian idiom states: “The next year will be how the last year ended”. Thus, many things are going on 31st of December. The president of Austria Alexander van der Bellen (Engl. Alex from the Woof) is giving a speech on public TV about how Austria is cool, but still, we have to stick to our values such a hospitability and benevolence. Then everyone is meeting for the New Year’s Eve parties. The majority of people gather to drink, exchange lucky charms and play games until midnight, where they shoot all kind of legal and illegal fireworks.
Another tradition is to do lead melting. You get a small lucky charm made of metal and you melt it with a candle on a spoon. Then you drop it into cold water. After the solidification, you get it out and look at the bizarre form of the lead. You can then interpret what it looks like and search the meaning in one of the countless books or the internet, e.g. a wale stands for doing something good for the body while a droplet means that a problem is not as bad as it seems.
The most cultivated way to celebrate the starting of the new year is to attend the New Year’s classical concert in almost every opera or bigger concert hall. Austria is known for its classical music and philharmonic orchestras and what better to listen to an epic concert of strings with a follow-up dancing of the Viennese Waltz at midnight in the streets on Austria!