A Cultural Guide to Christmas in Austria
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Christmas in Austria is the coziest time of the year. Christmas is when everything slows down, and the tradition of Advent, the heartwarming sights and smells of Christmas, and the “Silent Night” carol all come alive. From the dreadful Krampus Day to the feast of St. Nicholas, every corner is filled with festive cheer.
In this article, I will teach you how to indulge in the delicious treats of the Christkindlmarkt and elevate your holiday spirit with a visit to the magnificent cathedral for a Christmas Mass. But I will also tell you what happens in family homes where traditional Austrian Christmas is celebrated.
Advent: How Austria Celebrates the Season
Christmas in Austria is celebrated not just on Christmas Eve but throughout the entire Advent period, which typically begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Advent lasts for four weeks. Therefore, every Sunday in Advent is called Advent Sunday (Adventsonntag).
Christmas Wreath: Nature’s Beauty at Home
During Advent, we light Advent wreaths, which are made of evergreen branches and have four candles, one of which is lit each Sunday. When visiting a farmers market in November and early December, you find these wreaths with four candles on them. You also find them in most Austrian homes during that time. One of the candles is lit each Sunday before Christmas eve, each Advent Sonntag.
Music and Carols: The Musical Side of Christmas
Christmas in Austria is also associated with music, particularly carols sung in churches, homes, and at Christmas markets during the Advent season and on Christmas Eve. And while there is a myriad of traditional Christmas Carols in Austria, one stands out. One that everyone knows, not just in Austria but worldwide. The “Silent Night”, the most famous Christmas Carol ever, was composed here in Salzburg.
To learn more about the history of this charming Christmas tradition and the locations related to it near Salzburg, check out my article here.
Austrian Christmas and Nativity Scenes
Nativity scenes, or Krippen in German, are essential to Christmas in Austria. They depict the scene of the birth of Jesus, usually including the baby Jesus in a manger, Mary and Joseph, the three Wise Men, shepherds, and an angel and animals. Nativity scenes are placed in churches, homes, and public places and can range from small tabletop displays to large, life-size scenes.
Christmas Markets: The Heart of the Holiday
By now, you might be thinking enough of Wreaths, Carols, and Nativity Scenes; we are here for the Christmas markets. Of course, we are. Christmas markets are a staple of Christmas in Austria. Therefore, I wrote articles on the best Christmas markets in Austria and the best Christmas markets in Salzburg.
Christmas markets are all around the country, not only in the big cities but also in small towns. Visitors find traditional crafts and Christmas decorations and enjoy warm drinks and festive treats. We don’t go to Christmas markets to buy stuff. Some people go there to eat, but most visit Christmas markets to drink mulled wine (Glühwein) and punch (Punsch).
Indulging in Christmas Treats
I don’t particularly like Austrian Christmas cookies. They have a history dating back to when ingredients were limited and expensive. As a result, traditional recipes for these cookies often use minimal ingredients such as flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. This can make the cookies dry compared to modern variations, but here are a few cookies you find during Christmas in Austria, either really common or really good ones:
- Vanillekipferl: Vanilla crescent is the most classic but my least favorite recipe for Christmas cookies in Austria. You find it everywhere, at every market, and in every bakery, during Advent.
- Lebkuchen: Lebkuchen is Gingerbread like it’s enjoyed in many parts of the world, biscuits flavored with spices such as cloves and cinnamon. They are must-haves during the festive period in Austria. They come in Christmassy shapes and decorations and are often even hung on Christmas trees, like in our home, for example.
- Christstollen: Rather than being a cookie, stollen is a cake. There is also a variation called Christstollen, traditionally served at Christmas in Austria. There are fruits and nuts in it.
- Kokosbusserl: These are my favorites because they are the opposite of dry. “Busserl” in the Austrian dialect means kiss, and Kokosbusserl are made from flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and coconut flakes. They are small, moist, and round cookies.
The Good and the Bad: Saint Nicholas and Krampus
Santa Claus in Austria is called Saint Nikolaus (Heiliger Nikolaus) or just Nikolaus. In Austria, he has nothing to do with actual Christmas. He comes on December 6th to bring small presents. And while Nikolaus is about spreading joy, his companion Krampus is about keeping kids in check.
Krampus is a beastly creature, a demon. He joins in on the Nikolaus festivities to ensure kids have been good all year. On Saint Nicholas day, children leave a boot, shoe, or sock outside their bedroom Nikolaus to fill with gifts. Still, they also have to be mindful of Krampus since Nikolaus checks their list of good and bad deeds, rewarding the good children with sweets and nuts while Krampus punishes the bad ones.
When visiting Austria during the Christmas season, you may come across Saint Nikolaus, or Nikolaus, at the Christmas markets, but he usually visits children’s homes, where parents order him to come, sometimes accompanied by a Krampus. But if you’re looking for an exciting experience, you’ll want to check out the Krampus runs.
Between the last week of November and the second week of December, you’ll find these runs almost daily in towns and villages around Salzburg. A popular Krampus run in Gnigl, the largest in Salzburg, features hundreds of Krampuses. As a kid, the experience was more thrilling for me as. Krampuses were running freely back then, and it was terrifying. For safety reasons, they now run behind a fence. The problem is that nowadays you can’t see them well because of the crowds. When they were running freely, only the brave got a good view because they would actually hit and chase if they dared to come close.
Christmas Eve in Austria: A Family Affair
Christmas Eve, or Heiliger Abend, is Austria’s magical and special day. The country comes to a halt as shops close at around 6 pm. Even the streets are quiet, making it the perfect time to spend with loved ones. I remember the excitement of gathering with my family for a traditional dinner, with my parents telling me stories of the Christ child coming and bringing us presents. After dinner, many families would go to Midnight Mass, a beautiful and peaceful tradition.
Christmas Dinner: Feasting on Christmas
In Austria, traditional Christmas Eve dinner options may include sausage soup, stuffed Christmas goose with red cabbage, carp with potatoes and vegetables, fondue, or roast pork. However, it depends on the family and their traditions. In Salzburg, many families have sausage soup as part of their traditional Christmas dinner, as it was what my family had when I was a kid.
Christmas Trees: Bringing the Magic of Christmas to Life
Christmas trees play a central role in the celebration of Christmas in Austria. They are decorated with ornaments, lights, and other decorations, including gold and silver ornaments, straw stars, sweets, nuts, and gingerbread. These decorations are combined with lights and garlands to create a beautiful and magical display. Christmas trees are often central to family gatherings and are lit on Christmas Eve while singing carols. It’s a tradition to put up the tree on December 24th.
PERSONAL STORY: My mum grew up on a community farm in Kleßheim on the outskirts of Salzburg. When I was a kid, that’s where my grandma and aunt lived, and that’s where we went for Christmas Eve. The farmers’ community would gather in a traditional room, or “Stubn,” to pray the Rosario. When the prayer was finished after 45 minutes, which felt like an eternity as a kid, especially while waiting for the Christkind, we would begin to eat cookies, the grown-ups would drink Schnaps, and we would wait some more. Eventually, a bell would ring. The bell was supposedly rung by the Christkind, so as soon as we heard the bell, we would rush upstairs, and there it was. The Christmas tree was lit for the first time with presents underneath. In my home, we decorated the tree together, and Christkind only brought the gifts, but where my mum grew up, Christkind brought the whole tree and lit the candles.
Mitternachtsmette: The Significance of Midnight Mass
Mitternachtsmette, known as Midnight Mass, is a special church service on Christmas Eve in Austria. It’s a beautiful tradition. The service is traditionally held at midnight, hence the name Mitternachtsmette. Nowadays, the starting time varies between 10 pm and midnight. The Mitternachtsmette would be my number one recommendation if you visit Austria on Christmas Eve. Christmas in Austria is mainly celebrated at home so. If you don’t have friends or family in Austria, you have no chance of experiencing traditional Austrian Christmas Eve, but the Mitternachtsmette is like a secret meeting at night to celebrate the most important thing of the year, the birth of Jesus Christ.
Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s: Continuing the Celebration
On Christmas Day, December 25th, many families enjoy a large Christmas lunch, while others just enjoy a day off. When families come together on the 25th, there are often many more family members than on the 24th, but Christmas Day, December 25th, much more than the 24th, depends on the family tradition and how it’s celebrated. The same goes for St. Stephen’s Day. December 26th is still a day off in Austria. Families go to church and get together for lunch or dinner.
If you’re truly passionate about Christmas or have a Salzburg Card and are interested in learning more about the history and traditions of the holiday, I highly recommend visiting the Christmas Museum in Salzburg. The museum offers a glimpse into the past, showcasing traditional decorations, ornaments, and other festive items that were used to celebrate Christmas in Austria. It’s a great stop for anyone visiting Salzburg during the holiday season or for anyone looking to get into the Christmas spirit, even when it’s not the holiday season. The same applies to the two Christmas shops in Judengasse. If you’re also interested in other museums in Salzburg, you can check out my article that covers the best museums in Salzburg, including the Christmas Museum.
Epiphany: Bringing in the New Year
Traditionally, the Christmas tree and decorations are left up until the evening of January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany. On January 6th, the Three Wise Men are said to have visited baby Jesus, marking the end of the Christmas season. On Epiphany, three kids dressed as the three wise men, accompanied by an adult known as the Sternsinger (star singers), visit people’s homes, sing and tell a poem and ask for a donation before they write the letters C+M+B and the current year on the doorframe. These letters represent Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the three wise men.
In conclusion, the festive season of Christmas in Austria is a magical time filled with traditions and customs that have been passed down for generations. From Advent wreaths and candle lighting to the Krampus runs and Christmas markets, there is something for everyone to enjoy. The music and carols, particularly “Silent Night,” add to the atmosphere. And let’s not forget the delicious treats, from warm mulled wine and punch to traditional Christmas cookies.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a returning traveler, be sure to check out my other articles for more information on the best Christmas markets in Austria and the Christmas markets in Salzburg, as well as the history of “Silent Night” and the locations related to it near Salzburg. Happy holidays!