Christmas in Austria is filled with centuries-old traditions that still come alive today in homes and on town squares all over the country. The Christmas season in Austria is called Advent. It customarily starts on the 4th Sunday before Christmas, which is also called the 1st Advent. The season is officially over with the Epiphany on 6 January.
Christmas traditions in Austria
Most Austrian families we know still adhere to the tradition of making or buying an Advent wreath. Modern Advent wreaths aren’t necessarily round. Some are rectangular and some square – it doesn’t matter. The important thing is for them to have four candles.
The lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath is one of the best kept Christmas traditions in Austria. The first candle is lit on the 1st Advent Sunday, with another one added on each Advent Sunday thereafter until all four candles are burning on the 4th Advent.
In some families, the lighting of the Advent candles during Christmas in Austria is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols or the telling/reading of Advent stories.
While you may find Advent wreaths hanging on front doors, most candle-bearing Advent wreaths stand on a table or window sill. Wood and bark often form the base, with evergreen fir tree branches or twigs providing some green. Other decorations include ribbons, pine cones, holly, and laurel.
In Tulfes in Tyrol, our hometown, it’s customary for the women to gather in the town hall in the last week of November to make advent wreaths. Fortunately, there are always enough to sell to the working moms too.
If you mention the word Advent calendar, people will most likely conjure up a picture of cardboard packaging with a Christmas scene and 24 “windows” behind which a mouthful of chocolate hide.
As a neighbour to Germany, where the Advent calendar originated in the 19th century, you will find some of the most unusual and beautiful calendars counting down the days to Christmas in Austria.
The first “Advent calendars” were chalk lines made to count down the days to Christmas. Another theory is that they originated with a German pastor who made a wooden crown with 24 candles. The lighting of a candle a day was meant to make the wait until Christmas more bearable for children. (This is also where the Advent wreath with 4 candles originated.)
In Austrian shops today, there are Advent calendars filled with beer, tea bags, chocolates, toys, books – you name it. But the most beautiful ones are those which you can fill with whatever you want. Real works of art in the shape of Christmas trees, or trains, or painted wooden boxes with drawers.
Sadly, you will find none of these unique Advent calendars in our home. Our Lego fanatic son insists on either a Lego City or Lego Star Wars Advent calendar.
Personally, I have an Advent calendar filled with Lindt chocolates to look forward to each year. Technically, it’s C’s calendar which he gets from an international shipping company at work. However, he has learned that it’s best to just give it over to me. I do make up for it by buying him his own (ordinary) version of a chocolate Advent Calendar. Christmas in Austria won’t be the same without my daily treat from December 1 to 24!
Nikolaus and Krampus
Once the Advent wreaths are made and the calendars bought, it’s time to start thinking about Saint Nicholas and his evil companion Krampus who visit Austrian children on December 5 or 6.
Nikolaus, as the saint is called in Austria, visits on his own with his angels when children behave well during the year. The angels carry hemp bags filled with peanuts in the shell, walnuts, nectarines, and of course, chocolate Nikolaus figures. Really good children also get a small toy gift.
But beware if you don’t behave well or have spiteful parents! In this case, the devil incarnate in the form of a Krampus visits together with Nikolaus and his angels.
Krampus is a scary bugger. REALLY SCARY. He has horns and a whip. He wears a beast-like fur costume. He bangs cowbells and rattles chains. His eyes glow orange. In short: he makes kids behave well, even if it’s only for a day.
In Tulfes, Nikolaus and Krampus make home visits. Thank goodness, you can opt for Krampus to stay outside. But once, when it was out of our hands, not one, but TWO Krampusses came into our home and scared the sh.t out of us. The growling devils even made as if to whip me when I told them to back off.
M miraculously didn’t get nightmares as a result. But on a subsequent occasion when we drove home just after 17:00 on December 5 and encountered a Nikolaus and 2 Krampusses in the street outside our home, he freaked out a little. We had to repeatedly assure him that no Krampus would enter the house of our friends where we later awaited Nikolaus.
Note: The Krampus doesn’t only make its appearance with Nikolaus on December 5 or 6. Krampus runs or parades through the streets of towns and cities are a tradition before Christmas in Austria. Some costumes are hundreds of years old, and even boys dress up as devils.
In Tulfes, the Tulfer Höllenbruat is held every second year. This isn’t a Krampus parade, but rather a show where the devils try to be as scary as possible on a stage. The only nice thing about it (for me) is the big firework display afterward.
Christmas markets in Austria
Advent is in full swing after Nikolaus and Krampus have come and gone. By now, many Christmas markets in Austria are officially open. The commercial ones in the big cities start doing business from mid-November. In the smaller tourist towns, some only open on the four Advent weekends.
It’s true that the Christmas markets of Vienna, Graz, Salzburg, and Innsbruck have become big tourist attractions. In Vienna, the main Christmas market called the Vienna Christmas World is held on the Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.
Innsbruck Christmas markets are centered around the old town, with the most romantic one in front of the Golden Roof. In Salzburg, the main Christmas market is held on Cathedral square in the heart of the historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While these big Christmas markets remain authentic, my advice would be to visit at the end of November/beginning of December to avoid the crowds. Glühwein (mulled wine) and traditional treats like Kiachl and Zillertaler Krapfen tend to lose their appeal if you must queue half an hour in minus degrees for them.
What we love most about the markets during Christin Austria are the authentic medieval settings. You can bet there is a church tower of at least a few hundred years old towering over the festivities at most Christmas markets.
Christmas markets in Austria are called a Christkindlmarkt or Adventmarkt. What can you expect at an Austrian Christmas market? How do chestnuts roasting on an open fire sound? Or Glühwein and Kinderpunsch (the children’s version of mulled wine) to keep the cold at bay? Not to mention the hand-crafted Christmas decorations, traditional music, and children’s activities.
Heilige Abend or Christmas Eve in Austria
Despite the wonderful traditions, the lead-up to Christmas in Austria is very busy. Children mostly have school until 23 December, and shops do business until 24 December. But then, from around 15:00 on 24 December, it’s as if an imaginary switch is turned off. Traffic comes to a halt and people retreat to their homes and their families.
In Austria, it’s the Christkind (Christ-child) who brings the presents. An angelic looking child, he/she enters unseen. In the Austrian families we know, this happens while they attend the Christmas Eve church service. Even when the family is home, the door to the living room or “stube” remains closed until a bell is rung to announce the Christkind has been.
Of course, to the delight of the children, the family finds neatly wrapped Christmas presents under the tree when entering the previously locked room. In religious Catholic families, the home is also blessed with burning incense and sprinklings of holy water on Heilige Abend.
What do Austrians eat on Heilige Abend? Would you believe me if I said sausages in many forms? Some prefer them in potato soup, others with potato salad or sauerkraut. In Vienna and other eastern provinces, Carp is a traditional Christmas Eve dish. Nearer to Switzerland in the west, cheese specialties like fondue and raclette are gaining popularity.
The Austrian Christmas tree
In traditional Austrian homes, you won’t see a Christmas tree until December 24 when kids help their parents or grandparents prepare the tree for the Christkind. I think we are frowned upon when our tree goes up about 2 weeks before Christmas, and especially when we start packing gifts under it.
Although the tree and accompanying decorations go up at the last minute, you’ll find a Christbaum for sale long before that. There are no fake Christmas trees in Austria, thank you. They special fir trees or Zirbenbäume are planted especially for Christmas.
We are fortunate to be surrounded by a number of Christmas tree plantations in Tulfes. After shopping around for a few years, we now have a fixed Christmas tree supplier. We travel about 2km down the road to the family Kössler of the Heissangererhof. Farmer Markus patiently accompanies us while we discuss the size and shape of just about every tree. After wrapping it up nicely in a net, we are offered a schnapps to say thank you for the business. If we happen to shop on the same day as the annual farm Christmas market, a Glühwein is included in the price.
A huge tree, sometimes several stories high, forms the centrepiece of many a town and city square in Austria at Christmas time. Most are simply lit with white lights and maybe some red Christmas baubles. Generally, Christmas lights in Austria aren’t multi-coloured.
Austrian Christmas time treats
Besides the chocolate in all shapes and sizes, there are many unique Austrian Christmas treats. Both sweet and savoury, we look forward to visiting Christmas markets to sample our favourites.
M is a real little Austrian who loves the spicy Lebkuchen. The brown biscuit has a familiar ginger taste, but also contains other spices such as cinnamon that is typical to Christmas in Austria.
Austrian Christmas cookies or Kekse are generally bite-sized. Popular ones include Vanillekipferl (vanilla biscuits in half-moon shape dusted with icing sugar), Linzer Augen (two biscuits stuck together with jam and with openings in the top biscuit), and Windringerl (meringue rings). The Austrian or German version of baked Christmas fruitcake is called Adventstollen, Weihnactsstollen or Christstollen.
Christmas market favourites are Kiachl (a deep-fried sourdough bread with a hollow in the middle which is perfect to hold sauerkraut or cranberry jam) or Zillertaler krapfen (a deep-fried pastry with a special cheese filling from the Ziller Valley in Tyrol).
The closest thing to healthy you will get at an Austrian Christmas market is roasted chestnuts, fruit dipped in chocolate or sugar-coated roasted nuts.
Traditional Glühwein comes in a few adapted versions, such as the Feuerzangenbowle. The Glühwein boils in a pot over an open fire, with a rum-soaked sugarloaf positioned over it. When the sugarloaf is set on fire, the caramelised sugar drips into the Glühwein.
Silent Night – A proudly Austrian Christmas song
Who doesn’t know the melody of Silent Night, even if they don’t know all the words. It’s easily the most famous Christmas Carol of all time. And it was sung for the first time in the Saint Nicholas Chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg in 1818.
Franz Xaber Gruber, a school teacher, composed the melody on that very same Christmas Eve day after he was given the lyrics by local priest Joseph Mohr. Mohr had already written the words for “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” in a poem in 1816.
In 2011, Silent Night was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. The song has been translated into more than 150 languages. Here is the first verse of the original German.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Listen to this beautiful performance of the original version by the Vienna Boys Choir.
Other well-known Austrian Christmas carols include Leise rieselt der Schnee (my favourite) and O Tannenbaum.
Epiphany or Heilige Drei Könige (Three Kings‘ Day)
Christmas in Austria finally comes to an end for us on the afternoon of January 6, when we start watching out for the Heilige Drei Könige walking from door to door in Tulfes. Also called Sternsinger, they are local kids dressed up as the Wise men.
The Heilige Drei Könige solve the mystery of the writing in chalk above most Austrian front doors. After their visit on January 6, they write the year, broken up into two parts with the letters C M B in the middle, on the door frame. C B M supposedly stand for “Christus mansionem benedicat” or “May Christ bless this house”. Another theory is that it’s the first letters of the three kings’ names – Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar.
The wise men who visit us in Tulfes say a special poem and swing an incense holder to bless our home. They also use the opportunity to raise money for charity.
After January 6, you may take your Christmas tree and other Christmas decorations down.
The best places to stay during Christmas in Austria
A white Christmas in Austria hasn’t been guaranteed in the past 8 years. We felt extremely lucky when it started to snow on Christmas Eve on our very first Christmas here in 2010. We woke up to a winter wonderland the next morning.
For the best chance to experience a traditional white Christmas, you should head for the mountainous provinces of Salzburg, Tyrol, and Vorarlberg. Even if there’s no snow in the valleys, you’re sure to catch some of the white stuff in the mountains.
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