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Christmas in Austria: Ornaments, Candy, and Toys
Excited shoppers look for ornaments, candy, and toys at the famous "Weihnachtsmarkt" (Christmas Market) in Salzburg Austria.
Austria’s historical heritage and passion for art, craftsmanship, food, and music make it a vibrant country to visit at any time of the year, but especially at Christmas. Some of the greatest composers in the world come from Austria: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg; Johann Strauss, Jr., is known as Austria’s “king of the waltz”; and Joseph Haydn taught an up-and-comer named Ludwig van Beethoven.
But if it weren’t for organist Franz Bauer, Christmas Eve would be a very silent night all over the world. It was Bauer’s quick thinking that saved a Christmas Eve service in Oberndorf in 1818, when a priest, Josef Mohr, discovered that mice had chewed their way through a belt in the church organ. A Christmas in Austria without music would be a disaster, so Mohr showed Bauer lyrics he had written for a new Christmas hymn. Could Bauer lend his musical prowess and save the day – and night?
Indeed he could. Bauer quickly composed music for the tune so that it could be played on a guitar. “Silent Night” broke the silence in the church and was quickly embraced as Austria’s favorite and most soothing Christmas Eve hymn.
“Silent Night” often opens the Advent season in Austria, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country of about 8.4 million people. With lyrics or without and played with an organ as well as a guitar, Austrians have personalized the hymn in a myriad of ways. The hymn serves as a calling card at Christkindlmarkts that spring up in towns big and small throughout the picturesque, hilly country. Merchants know: build a Christkindlmarkt and Austrians will come; but play “Silent Night” and they will dash over with enthusiasm during Christmas in Austria.
By day, these open-air markets sell hand-made toys and gifts, ornaments, chocolates, marzipan and especially linzer cookies, which originated in the Austrian city of Linz and are a classic dessert in Austria, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland. A famous version of the Austrian tart is the linzer torte, which is often shaped like a star or circle and contain a thin layer of jam in between the double cookie layer.
By night, the sweet aroma of gingerbread, baked apples and roasted chestnuts draw Austrians to congregate at the markets while enjoying steaming mugs of gluhwein (mulled wine) and spiced punch and songs recorded by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which was founded in the country’s capital city in 1498, giving Christmas in Austria a world-wide and enviable distinction.
Christmas in Austria Features Two Holiday Mascots
At any time of day, the festive Christkindlmarkts – decorated with strings of lights and flowers – also feature the two Austrian holiday mascots: the kindly St. Nicholas and his grumpy sidekick, Krampus.
Like other European countries, Austria celebrates St. Nicholas Day on December 6. To prepare, St. Nicholas – also known as Nicolo, Nikolo and Niklaus – arrives in Austrian towns to great fanfare and a parade on the last Saturday in November. With his flowing robe and miter, he resembles a bishop and asks children if they have behaved properly in the last year.
The beloved figure is accompanied by Krampus, a frightening creature who wears a dark, devilish mask, horns on his head and chains on his legs. Children think of him as the anti-St. Nicholas, because he carries a wooden stick, gruffly inquires about their behavior, and often issues mild but firm ultimatums ultimatums about how he expects children to behave during Christmas in Austria as well as every other day, too.
The truth of the matter often reveals itself the next day, when well-behaved children are likely to find that the shoes they left outside their bedroom doors or on windowsills have been filled with apples, oranges, nuts, candy and small toys. Krampus does not possess such a benevolent spirit, he is likely to render his judgment by leaving a piece of coal or nothing at all.
All hope is not lost, however, as children may find gifts under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. Austrians believe that the cherubic Christ child (or the Christkind) brings presents, and it is to him that they address their letters and wish lists in the weeks before December 25.
The Christmas tree is also a common sight in town squares squares during Christmas in Austria, but Austrians add their stamp of individuality to this tradition, too. In addition to decorating one tree with hand-made and hand-painted ornaments, foil-wrapped candy and gilded nuts, they cover another tree with bread crumbs for the birds.
On Christmas Day, Austrians often ring a bell to signal that the Christ child has left gifts under the family Christmas tree. Other families literally or figuratively ring the dinner bell to bring everyone together for a feast that celebrates the Austrian heritage.
The meal often begins with finger sandwiches made with cheese, ham, sausage or boiled eggs, along with small cornichon pickles. The main course might include gebackener karpfen (fried carp), weihnachtsganz (roast goose), venison or wiener schnitzel, which is a veal or pork cutlet dipped in egg and bread crumbs and then lightly fried. Dumplings and rotkraut (red cabbage) are favored Austrian side dishes, and they often compete with boiled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and winter peas to celebrate Christmas in Austria.
Children and adults alike know to leave plenty of room for Christmas dessert, for pastries are an art form in Austria. In fact, the Christkindlmarkts often proclaim that “pastry is the pride of Austria.”
Even a cursory glance at the dessert cart will bring credence to this claim, for only expertly trained Austrian pastry chefs can create such sweet delights as apfelstrudel (a baked pastry filled with apples and raisins); sachertorte (a chocolate-apricot cake covered with dark chocolate icing); povitica (a sweet bread); heart-shaped lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies); and weihnachtsbaeckerei (Christmas sugar cookies).
After this festive meal, many families head outdoors to ice skate or sled, often gliding to the background strains of yodeling, which has experienced something of a revival in Austria. The “music of the mountains” was embraced by romantics who sought a way to communicate with their sweethearts in neighboring towns. In other parts of the country, Austrians prefer to end the day, and Christmas in Austria, on a more befitting note: by absorbing the stillness and beauty of a memorable silent night.
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Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Linzer Cookies Tested Recipe. < http://www.joyofbaking.com/LinzerCookies.html >
Sanna, Jeanine. The European Union: Political, Social and Economic Cooperation: Austria. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2006.
Stein, R. Conrad. Austria: Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children’s Press, 2000.
Tan, Ronald. Welcome to my Country: Welcome to Austria. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2005.