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Christmas in Austria.

AN Austrian Christmas conjures up a world filled with Drosselmeyer, Clara and her nutcracker prince, with fir-trees and new fallen snow, with Vanillekipferln and Santa Kloses. In truth, Christmas in this gentlest of German-speaking nations is a month's celebration rich in ancient peasant customs, a country holiday, a heilige Weihnacht.

Traditionally the season begins on December 6, St. Nikolaus' day when many villages and cities have public processions in honour of the patron saint of children. In Innsbruck St. Nikolaus' procession winds its way past candle-lit windows, giving sweets and fruit to children along the way and ends in the square before the city's famous Golden Roof from beneath whose balcony the ~bishop saint' addresses the crowd below. Just as English children traditionally hung up stockings, young Austrians put their shoes in the window, hoping for presents. It is surprising that in such a small country the saint has so many names: he is normally Nikolaus but in the eastern part of Austria he is Nikolo, Niglo or even Miglo while in the Tirol and the Vorarlberg he answers to Santaklos or even Klos, to those who know him well. Normally, as befits this most Catholic country, St. Nikolaus is a celibate but in the provinces of Lower Austria and Styria he is married. Unfortunately for him, his wife, Nikolofrau, is known as something of a termigant--at least to some.

Even worse than Nikolofrau is the malignant Krampus, a masked and rather nasty piece of work who accompanies St. Nikolaus to pick up naughty children whom he places in his rucksack or Buckelkraxn in transit for a place far hotter than Austria in December. At least that is the theory: in practice St. Nikolaus protects Austrian children, as is his duty, from the devilish fate prepared for them. In the village of Rauris, some thirty miles south of Salzburg, St. Nikolaus' day is ushered in the night before by a group of young men known as Schiachperchten who parade round the village. They are dressed in ragged clothes and straw shoes, wear two-foot high ugly peaked masks (the Schiachperchten) and caps like the Spanish penitents during Lent and carry brooms, scissors and a large basket. Their object seems to be two-fold, to frighten winter away and, like Krampus with his sack, to collect bad children.

For some, Christmas begins two days earlier on the 4th, St. Barbara's day, when a ~Barbara twig' is cut from a cherry tree and placed in a vase of water. If it blooms before Christmas Eve the family will see a marriage in the year to come.

As everywhere else, Christmas revolves round children. On Advent Sunday the Advent Calendar is brought out. Indeed, it is claimed as an Austrian creation. If legend is to be believed, an Austrian mother attached twenty-four pieces of cake to cardboard, one piece to be eaten each day. (The legend says nothing about the quality of the twenty-fourth piece.) The little boy grew up, established a printing house and, in 1903, began issuing ~Advent Calendars' with pictures replacing his mother's cake. Children wishing to write to Father Christmas are given an address by the Austrian Post Office and all letters, with an s.a.e., received between 28 November and 6 January will receive a reply from the post office in the village of Christkindl (the Christ-child), near Steyr, Upper Austria.

The decoration of Christmas trees is taken extremely seriously by Austrians: not for them the artificial tree and plastic baubles that have come in here. Ironically, the Christmas tree is no more native to Austria than to England. Just as it was introduced here from Protestant Germany by George III's consort, Queen Charlotte and popularised by Prince Albert, in Austria it was introduced by the wife of Archduke Karl, famous throughout Europe as the first general to defeat Napoleon. The Archduchess Henriette von Nassau-Weilburg's influence was such that in the years following her marriage in 1815 her ~Christmas-tree' became fashionable.

In the early nineteenth century Austrians decorated their trees with paper roses, fruit, cakes and nuts. Later, glass ornaments were added but in recent years people seem to be returning to earlier customs. Although electric lights have made some in-roads, all my Austrian friends assured me that they still used small candles -- kleine Kerzen. Many places have special Christmas markets -- in Salzburg it is the Christkindlmarkt which opens in front of the Cathedral on 25 November with fanfares and a carol service. In Innsbruck there is the Tiroler Heimatwerk on the Meranerstrasse where you can buy, at a price, the world famous handcarved wooden decorations for which the Tyrol is famous. In Vienna there is a good market near the Maria Hilfer Strasse, Vienna's Oxford Street. It is actually in the Spittelberg where, it is said, Mozart used to play skittles. The main market is in front of the Rathaus or Town Hall on the Ringstrasse and it is here you will find Vienna's Christmas Tree, given by the eight provincial states or Lander to the capital.

In addition to any tree there is always a Christmas Creche or Krippe--crib -- and the Tirol is again famous for these. Inside are wax, not plastic, figures and place of honour is given, naturally, to the Christchild. Now this particular wax figure has a special meaning for Austrians because of a seventeenth century miracle. In 1695 Ferdinand Sertl, an organist, was given one by some nuns who admired the way in which he coped with his epilepsy. Sertl put the wax figure into the hollow of a tree and prayed for a cure which was granted. The story of the miracle spread and thirteen years later the foundation stone for a chapel on the site of the tree was laid and the high altar was built round the tree. In 1985, Sertl's wax figure was discovered in the church loft and now rests in a niche above the door to the vestry.

The time before Christmas is also a period for some extraordinary customs that have survived. In Oberndorf, the village where ~Silent Night' was composed in 1818, boatmen unable to work on the frozen Salzach River, used to go round asking for supplies to survive the winter. In 1924 the custom which had disappeared, was revived and men now walk round with their lanterns, bells and crib atop a six foot pole collecting money for charity. There are public carol concerts throughout Austria: one of the most famous takes place in the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg. In the beautiful village of Igls, just outside Innsbruck and long a favourite of British visitors, a beautiful torch-lit procession symbolising the arrival of Christ takes place on 23 December. The children of the area, some 250 to 300, process in their nativity costumes through the village to the outdoor stage in its centre. Here they enact a living manger which lasts about half an hour. Many of the spectators have come up the mountain from Innsbruck, some on the tram that runs through the forest.

The principal day of Christmas is not, as with the English and Americans, the twenty-fifth but Christmas Eve -- the German for Christmas is, after all, ~consecrated night'. It is a public holiday along with Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and is essentially a family occasion. In the morning there is time for last-minute shopping: in Salzburg the Chriskindlmarkt is closed at noon when cannons boom forth from the great castle of Hohensalzburg and the Kapuzinerberg on both sides of the Salzach River. Immediately the bells of Salzburg begin to peal forth. Many people will devote the afternoon to visiting the graves of deceased family and friends. People gather round the grave, decorate it with flowers and candles and sing hymns.

Once back home celebrations start. The Christmas tree candles are lit, presents are exchanged and the eating begins in earnest. Austria, unlike the English-speaking world, has not given her heart totally to the turkey or to any particular meat-dish and the food eaten varies according to the region. In Vienna and eastern Austria the favourite is fish, especially carp although it is not to everyone's taste: one friend, who has hated fish throughout her life, recalled that on Christmas Eve her great treat was not to eat fish! For those not eating carp there is goose which is stuffed with chestnuts, fried onions, chopped bacon, giblets and milk. Like carp, however, goose is expensive and is giving way to turkey, duck, pork or beef; Sekt wine is often drunk with the meal.

Many families who are not dieting, and few Austrians seem to do this, have roll-mops which are cut into pieces and then mixed with diced green apples, gherkins, capers, soured cream, mayonnaise, ground black pepper and cocktail onions. There is beef soup, veal sausages, glazed apples and spiced red cabbage which is seasoned with wine, vinegar, sugar and spices. Sweet-breads include Christstollen, a delicious yeast bread filled with candied fruits and raisins and Fruechtebrot similar to our fruit-cake. Each family has its own favourite cake or Torte, whether it is a Sachertorte or Linzertorte or a home-made chocolate cake. In addition there is a range of tray-bakes or Weihnachtskeks. These include Vanillekipferl, Cocosbusserl, Husarenkrapferl, Hausfreunde and Lebkuchen. They are cut into various Christmas shapes and sprinkled with ground nuts or sugar. To drink there is, especially in Vienna, Sekt wine and throughout Austria Gluhwein, a hot punch made of wine, more often red, fruit, sugar, spices, and for some, a little rum.

At night the cold, still air in Austria's cities, towns and villages is rent by church bells. Outside Salzburg, in the small town of Oberndorf, thousands gather outside the simple memorial chapel built on the spot where ~Silent Night' was first sung in 1818. (Many will have crossed the river from Oberndorf's sister town, Laufen, in Germany, having waved at the sole border guard and exchanged the familiar, ~Gruss Gott' greeting. The Christmas story is read both in German and English. There is a brief sermon, hymns and then the lights are switched off. In the dark two men sing the first two verses of the famous hymn accompanied only by a guitar as was the case in 1818. Then the crowd joins in for the remaining verses.

The main religious service throughout Austria is the Midnight Mass or Weihnachtsmette. Although on a normal Sunday only about twenty in every one hundred Austrians go to Mass, on Christmas Eve the number soars to about eighty. Many women in the thriving villages and smaller towns wear their regional costumes which, in the Lands of Upper Austria and Salzburg, are beautiful silk dresses which reach to the ground while others wear the more familiar Dirndl with white blouse, embroidered bodice and full skirt. On their heads women wear the fantastic Goldenhauben or gold caps made up of thousands of small gold sequins. These can take up to one hundred hours to make and are worth thousands: not surprisingly they are handed down from mother to daughter. Austria's cathedrals and abbeys, with their wonderfully rich musical tradition, will have elaborate sung masses by Haydn or Mozart both of whom were, of course, Austrian.

Christmas Day is reserved for the visits of close friends and, in the afternoon, a message from the Bundes Prasident. To cope with visitors most housewives set up buffets including the white sausages or Mettwurst although in the Tyrol, there is a hash made of smoked tongue, peas and mashed potatoes. Celebrations, however, have not stopped. In Bergheim, near Salzburg, December 28th sees groups of boys and young men wandering through the village streets. They carry chains, whips and rattles and take up collections, not so much for charity as for lager and schnapps in the village inn -- a sort of transposed Guy Fawke's Day.

On New Year's Eve, Austria's major cities and towns host a Silvester Ball, named in honour of St. Silvester whose day it is. These can be grand affairs and are not occasions for rock ~n' roll but for music in the land where the waltz is still king. For those who need to brush up on the intricate steps of the Viennese waltz there are numerous schools, the most famous of which is Willy Elmayer's Tanz Schule on the Brannerstrasse in Vienna's old city where lessons cost about 10[pounds]. Before one sets out for the ball they will need to fortify the inner man and here, the pig reigns. There is roasted pork for luck -- Schweinebraten fur Gluck and afterwards little cakes shaped like pigs. For villages too small to host a ball there are Gluhwein parties and, as the new year dawns, fireworks to welcome in the Neue Jahr.

The arrival of the new year brings with it its own customs. In the Tirol, men dressed like bears dance in the streets. If they pick a man out of the crowd to strike him on the shoulder little notice is taken but if they touch a woman alarm can spread: the tradition is that she will become pregnant within the year. There is another custom that extends throughout all Austria and lasts throughout the year: when travelling round, visitors will see mysterious letters written on door lintels:

19 -- K + M + B -- 93

They reminded me of the chalked recording of successful ~bumps' on the walls of Oxford Colleges after Torpids or Eights, the two rowing competitions on the Isis or Thames, or the markings made by priests on the Paschal Candle. They are in fact the recording of a visit made by royalty, by the three kings, die Drei Konige. Between 1 and 6 January houses which wish it are visited by a group whose origins lie hidden in central European history. The ~Kings' are men from the local area who arrive dressed in white smocks with tall black hats, in the centre of which a space has been cut for a candle. The lights are turned out and the Three Kings, carrying a Christmas Crib, are let in. They are accompanied by a servant boy and proceed through all the rooms with a thurible or censer to bless the house. Afterwards there is a collection for charity and schnapps is handed round. On leaving, Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar leave a token of their visit with a piece of chalk.

With the departure of the Three Wise Men, Christmas celebrations come to an end in Austria. Of all the varied customs and celebrations that survive in this heartland of Europe the one that remains with me most is not the glorious sung masses in Salzburg or Vienna or the excitement of the Chriskindlmarkt but the simple doorway to the little chapel in Oberndorf round which are carved the immortal words, Friede den Menschen auf Erden die Eines Guten Willens sind, Peace on earth, good will to men.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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