Austria shares many Christmas traditions with its neighbor Germany, but also has many special Christmas customs of its own.
During Advent, many families will have an Advent wreath made of evergreen twigs and decorated with ribbons and four candles. On each of the four Sundays of Advent, a candle is lit and one or two Christmas carols can be sung!
Most cities will have a ‘Christkindlmarkt’ (Christmas market) from the end of November or the beginning of December, selling Christmas decorations, food (such as gingerbread) and Glühwein (sweet and hot wine). Cities like Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg have huge markets and people from all over the world visit them.
Each village will also have a large Christmas tree in the town square. In the houses, the trees are decorated with gold and silver ornaments and stars made of straw.
Christmas in Austria really begins around 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve (‘Heilige Abend’) when the tree is lit for the first time and people come to sing Christmas carols around the tree. The most famous Christmas carol is Silent Night (‘Stille Nacht’), written in Austria in 1818.
The national pop radio station Ö3 has special Christmas ‘jingles’ and plays Christmas music from 4:00 pm on ‘Heilige Abend’. It is used by many people as the “soundtrack” for the beginning of Christmas. This is the version of ‘Stille Nacht’ played on Ö3 in 2007: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J22A1vs4K7o
Traditionally, the Christmas tree is brought and decorated on Christmas Eve. The decorations include candles (now often electric) and flares. For children, other important decorations are sweets, such as small chocolate bottles full of liquor, chocolates of various types, gelatin rings and ‘Windbäckerei’ (merengue, usually in the form of rings, stars, etc.).
Some children believe that the ‘Christkind’ decorates the tree. Christianity also brings gifts to children on Christmas Eve and leaves them under the tree. (The Christkind is described as a baby with golden hair, with wings, which symbolizes the newborn Christ.)
Some children may also receive a gift from St. Nicholas on December 6. In Austria, Saint Nicholas is often accompanied by Krampus, a great monster with horns dressed in rags and wearing chains. It is meant to punish children who have been bad!
The main Christmas meal is also eaten on Christmas Eve. Often it is the main dish ‘Gebackener Karpfen’ (fried carp); This is because many Catholics considered Christmas eve as a day of “fasting” and could not eat meat. However, the “Weihnachtsgans” (roasted goose) and roast turkey are increasingly popular. The dessert can be chocolate and apricot cake ‘Sachertorte’ and Austrian Christmas cookies ‘Weihnachtsbaeckerei’ as ‘Lebkuchen’ (ginger honey) and ‘Vanillekipferl’ (almond cookies made in the shape of a horseshoe).
Some people ‘really cool’, or those who live in the mountains, could go skiing on Christmas day. Skiing on New Year’s Day is also popular.
Each year, the capital of Austria, Vienna, celebrates the world-famous classical music concert ‘NeuJahrsKonzert’, which takes place on the morning of New Year’s Day. It takes place in the “Großer Saal” (large hall) of Musikverein, the concert hall of the Vienna Music Association. The concert is performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and always presents music by the Strauss family: Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss. It is famous for its waltz music. During the last piece played, The Blue Danube, the introduction is interrupted by the applause of the audience and the musicians wish you a happy new year. The concert is shown around the world on television.
For Epiphany, on January 6, many people will put a special chalk sign on the door of their house. It is a reminder of the Magi who visited the baby Jesus. It is made from the year divided into two with initials for “Christus mansionem benedicat” which is “May Christ bless the house” in Latin. Then 2018 would be: 20 * C * M * B * 18. The signal is intended to protect the house for next year. (Some people say that the ‘CMB’ can also represent the names that are sometimes given to ‘the three wise men’, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, in the middle). As in some parts of Germany, the sign is traditionally written on the door by the Sternsinger (or star singers), singing children of carols who dress like wise men; and one who carries a star on a stick as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem.