Christmas in Austria

Christmas in Austria started in November, with the opening of the Christmas markets.  In the first weeks of November, dozens of Christmas markets (Christkindlmärkte/Weihnachtsmärkte) around Vienna (and all over Austria) opened. I had heard of the markets before, but I never expected them to be as big of a deal as they are. I expected one big market in every big city or something, but in reality there were seemingly markets around every corner. There was even a small market at the town square of Korneuburg (my small city of 12,000 people).

The Christmas markets are all open-air, completely outside. The rows of the Christmas markets are made up of individual small wooden roofed booths shaped like houses, decorated with lights and decorations. Each booth sells different goods, from sweets to soaps to Christmas ornaments and figurines. The largest Christmas market, the one at Vienna’s Rathaus (Town Hall) was accompanied by a large ice skating rink. One of the most popular things to do at Christmas markets is drink “Punsch” which is a hot alcoholic drink containing tea or spices, but there are many variations of Punsch with different recipes and ingredients.

December 1st was the beginning of Advent. Advent is also a thing in the US, but here it is more important. Everyone has at least one Advent calendar, with a door for every day of December containing chocolate or a small prize. I also bought myself and my host mom Advent tea, so we could each drink a tea together every morning of Advent. Also common here is the Advent wreath – a decorated pine wreath with 4 large candles in the middle. One candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas.

Here’s a rough timeline of my December in Austria:

On December 1st I woke up to a blanket of snow out my window. How perfect?

On the 3rd of December, my Rotary Counselor took me and my friend Ashley to Salzburg, Austria for a weekend. It was a 3 hour journey by train, and my first time in Salzburg. We stayed at the Sacher Hotel, a 5 star hotel where the Sacher Torte (Austria’s most traditional and famous cake) originated. During the weekend we toured Salzburg, went to a museum and aquarium, tasted the original Mozartkugeln, saw Mozart’s birth house, attended my first ever mass in Austria at the Salzburg Cathedral, and tried caviar for the first time. However, the highlight of the weekend was the Krampuslauf. In Austria, Children believe in St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas is believed to have an evil counterpart, a terrifying demon called Krampus who whips and disciplines the naughty children. In the days surrounding December 5th, which is Krampus Day, Krampus runs take place through the streets in Austria. Dozens of men dress up as terrifying Krampus monsters and run through the streets, whipping people and setting off smoke bombs and fire as they go. Although I got relentlessly whipped in the legs by at least one Krampus, witnessing the Krampuslauf in Salzburg was a great cultural experience.

December 6th was St. Nicholas Day. From “St. Nicholas”  I received a sack full of peanuts, oranges, and chocolates.

Around this time I started feeling a little bit of homesickness. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious missing of home, but more like an empty feeling that I couldn’t quite explain. Since my brother never felt homesickness in either of his exchanges (or so he claimed), I simply didn’t expect to either. So the homesickness that I experienced in the first few weeks of December hit me harder than I would have liked.  I missed Christmas traditions that I’ve done every year with my family for as long as I can remember. I missed being together with my family during the most family oriented season of the year. However, homesickness wasn’t a constant feeling, but simply a passing feeling of sadness that I felt every once in awhile in the first weeks of December, especially days in which I wasn’t busy or had too much free time. However, these passing feelings were easily cured with some cuddles with my host mom and talks with my host family, who understood and helped me through.

The middle of December consisted of going to a lot of Christmas markets and walking through the streets of Vienna which are beautifully adorned with lights, suspended chandeliers, and decorations. I also made lots of Christmas cookies with my host mom and host grandparents. I bought myself some wrapping paper, tape, and gifts, and set up a gift wrapping station in my room.

In mid-December I went on another trip to Salzburg, this time organized by Rotary, with all the exchange students in Austria. It was great to further explore the breathtaking city. This time I was a stereotypical tourist and visited some Sound of Music locations like the gardens that “Do Re Mi’ was filmed in.

I attended school until the day before Christmas Eve. By this time, everyone was impatient for winter break to begin. During class, we would sometimes break into a Christmas song in the middle of a lecture, much to the annoyance of the teacher. On the last day of school before break, we had a big Christmas breakfast buffet in class, and also performed a modern-day Nativity play called “Looking for Pokémon and Instead Finding Jesus.” I got the role of Baby Jesus.

We also had a Christmas mass in school. The students sat in the gymnasium and the school religion teacher/priest held a service. There were also some students who played violin, guitar, and drums while we all sang a few songs together, including Cohen’s Hallelujah. It was a powerful moment to sing one of my favorite songs of all time with my school, language barriers set aside for a moment, coming together as one to make music. After singing we took communion, then were dismissed from school for Christmas break.

I spent Christmas break at my host family’s flat in Eferding, a city near Linz and the 3rd oldest city in Austria. December 24th in the US is considered Christmas Eve, but in Austria it’s basically Christmas. On the 24th I woke up to a large, beautiful, real tree standing in the living room. Here, it is believed that the Christkind (Christ’s child) brings the tree.  My host mom and I decorated the tree with lights, ornaments, sweets, Schokoschirmchen (little chocolate umbrellas), and candles. For Christmas lunch we had special bread that is specific to Eferding and only eaten during Christmas and Easter. We also had Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. Later we went to a short Christmas church service. When we arrived back home, we saw that the Christkind had come and delivered our presents. We turned off all the lights and lit the candles on the tree. We wished each other “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas) and hugged each other, then gathered around the tree as my host brother read the Story of Christmas. We all sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night) in front of the illuminated tree. It was a completely surreal moment.

My delicious Christmas Dinner

My delicious Christmas Dinner

We then opened our presents. My host family really spoiled me, giving me lots of Austria related souvenirs, chocolate, fuzzy socks (they’ve caught onto my sock obsession), a Vienna snow-globe, and even my favorite cereal from America (Krave). I’m also getting the beautiful 120 year old piano in my room tuned, AND I’m getting a Dirndl (traditional Austrian dress). I’m so incredibly thankful for everything my host family did for me, I can not even begin to express my love and appreciation for them and everything they do for me. I felt no homesickness that day at all, because I realized this family and this place is home too.

We had a dinner feast consisting of wine, noodles, a potato, a soft flavorful meat, and a soft, hot apple topped with lingonberries. (Although those were very vague terms for what I ate, I promise it was really good).

On the 25th I went to a Christmas Day church service, then out to eat with my host family and grandparents. The rest of the day was pretty much like a normal day.

To finish this already long post about Christmas in Austria, I’m going to post an excerpt that I wrote on the 24th from the diary that I write in daily.

“I realized, I think for the first time ever, that Christmas isn’t about the presents or parties or physical things I used to associate it with. Some of my best memories today were made in the arms of the people I love dearly.  The kisses from my host grandmas, the echoes of everyone singing together in the dimly lit, beautiful church. The warm smiles from my host brothers from across the kitchen table.  The lone Wisconsin ornament [a Christmas present to my host family] hanging on the tree. The flickering of the candlesticks on the Christbaum [Christmas tree], glowing in our eyes. The togetherness, the love. I’m so thankful, I’m so happy, I’m so in awe of how lucky I am, how I really am living this life of a dream. Frohe Weihnachten.”

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