Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Memories of an Austrian Christmas

When I was six years old I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a Christmas with my relatives in Austria—my Oma and Opa (grandmother and grandfather) on my mother’s side of the family, and my uncle Christian, (my mother’s younger brother). Unlike the American celebration of Christmas on the twenty fifth of December, the Austrian celebration is on the twenty fourth, on Christmas Eve. There is a long tradition they hold to that says that the Christkindl (The Christ Child) comes to Earth on the twenty fourth of December, and that is the reason they celebrate on that Eve. Saint Nicholas or as they call him in Austria, Niklaus, actually comes before Christmas, either on the fifth or the sixth of December with his opponent the devil, known as Krampus. Together they come to the villager’s doors and ask the children whether they have been good or bad during the year. If the child says they were good, Niklaus may reward them with a small token such as an apple, orange, cookie, or some nuts. If the child says that they were bad, Krampus will try to catch and spank him or her. This may sound politically incorrect, but to the Austrians its all in good fun, and Niklaus will send the child running before Krampus has a chance to get them. Unfortunately, I missed this holiday event because I didn’t arrive in Austria until the week before Christmas. Even so, my mother has filled me in on how fun this tradition was for her as a child.

Waking up Christmas Eve morn, I can still faintly remember the sounds and the smells in the air. Oma and my mother clanking around in the small kitchen downstairs while preparing the food for the day, and the smell of marzipan mingled together with ginger, allspice, and cinnamon filling my senses. Full of joyful wonder I got up and headed down the old squeaky staircase of my grandparent’s small Vienna flat. Half way down I could see the living room, and with great bewilderment, I looked for the Christmas tree, but it was nowhere to be found. Even a few days earlier I had wondered why there wasn’t one up. But with all the excitement of being somewhere different for the holidays, I had forgotten to bring it up.

I went into the kitchen and asked my mother why there was no Christmas tree? My mother conversed with my Oma in German, and than in English said to me, “Go now and get dressed. We could use your help in here.” I decided not to pursue asking about the tree, seeing how busy they were making marzipan and ginger cookies and a brandy soaked, ladyfinger and whip cream cake.

Later on that day I was glad that I hadn't brought up the tree, because after coming home in the evening from doing some last minute shopping with my Uncle Christian, my sister and I were pleasantly surprised to see, standing in the small, dark livingroom, a beautiful Christmas tree set aglow with real candles on its branches and under it toys for my sister and I.

I never questioned my mother about why the tree was put up so late in the holiday until I was an adult and that is when I found out that it is tradition for the Austrians to put the tree up without the children knowing as late as possible on Christmas Eve. The children are sent out to play or do errands and then when they return in the evening they are surprised with a tree and unwrapped presents under it.

Today, my Oma and Opa are no longer with us, but I will never forget that extra-special, cozy Christmas I was able to spend with them. As a matter of fact, I still have a gift, a stuffed, little yellow lion with a red and white ribbon (the Austrian flag colors) tied in a bow around its neck; a present that my Oma had handmade for me that Christmas Eve more then thirty something years ago.

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  1. Aww That's such a sweet story :)

    I'm so glad you shared, and with such great detail! I've never seen a christmas tree lit with real candles before. How do they stay put?

  2. Sounds like a wonderful holiday! I love reading about Christmas traditions from other countries! :)