I’m 24 years old, and this year was the first time I haven’t made it home for Christmas. I love Christmas more than your average person–from radio stations that play carols 24/7 to every version of A Christmas Carol ever (especially the Muppet and Mickey Mouse editions) to decorations and lights to the Christmas blend at O’Henry’s Coffee in Birmingham, Alabama (literally the best coffee of all time). Last year, I had my Christmas tree up in my apartment from October to April, when I started celebrating the other season of the year: Summer.
But this Christmas, I experienced the holiday through the traditions of another culture, another family, and I had a Christmas season I will never forget.
After St. Nikolaus Day on December 6th (see some pictures here), everything in Austria really got going. Each city, town, and village had its own Christkindl markets and events. One weekend, I went with my host family to a castle in Eferding, Upper Austria, for their annual market and open house, complete with a tour of the castle guided by none other than Johannes and Susanna Kepler. Yes, the famous mathematician and astronomer married an Upper Austrian girl in Eferding way back in 1613, and revisited it exactly four hundred years later.
It was a fun day, full of local history and delicious things to eat. I had punsch full of real raspberries, this amazing potato and onion dish from Tirol, and real roasted chestnuts (Not gonna lie, not my favorite). Eferding is known for its vegetable production, so there was this colorful Krippe:
I even participated in some Austrian handcrafting, stamping designs onto tea towels with my host mom, Doris, and her mother.
It was a great day–one of many throughout December. I also visited Christmas markets in Linz and Wels. Each of the markets has its own personality, and its own mug for drinking Glühwein or Punsch. The Volksgarten market in Linz was a magical fairy wonderland, and probably wins best smelling market of Austria, while the market in Wels is kid focused, with an awesome place for sledding and a small train.
I think these mugs are genius, by the way. You pay a deposit for your cup, refill it throughout the market, and then either hand it in for the deposit or keep it as a cheap and place-specific souvenir (Like I did on my Christmas market trips to Vienna and Nuremberg!).
I also got into the Christmas spirit at home by putting Christmas lights on the plant in my kitchen and teaching Anna Sophie all the words to “Jingle Bells.”
Her excitement opening the little doors on her advent calendar each day, listening to Christmas music, and eating piles of cookies from different relatives was contagious, and I loved experiencing Christmas through her eyes.
On December 23rd, Doris, Anna Sophie, and I went to Christkindl–a tiny village in Upper Austria with a famous post office. Thousands of people mail their Christmas cards there to get the Christkindl postmark (Christkindl literally means “Christ child,” but also refers to the angel-fairy who brings presents on Christmas Eve. They’re kind of mixed together). Christkindl is also home to an amazing mechanical nativity scene from the 19th century. With over 300 figures, 150 of which move, it was really cool and worth the trip.
Unlike in America, the main Christmas celebrations in Austria happen on December 24th. We had a full schedule, starting with a delicious family brunch.
Then we all walked down to the village church to collect the holy light. This is a relatively new tradition in Upper Austria; a local kid is chosen to take a trip to Bethlehem and retrieve a holy flame from the nativity grotto there. The flame is then brought back to Austria and distributed across Europe and the world. It’s a really cool idea, a sort of Christmas Olympic flame. (You can read about this year’s “Peace Child” here).
We lit three different candles, hoping that at least one would make it on the windy walk home, and then lit candles throughout the house with the holy light. After that, we set up the family’s nativity scene (Krippe), which Anna found pretty fascinating.
We then headed over to her aunt and uncle’s house, where there were grandparents, a cousin, and (much to Anna Sophie’s delight) a cat. We ate raclette, which involves grilling different meats and vegetables on a little tabletop grill, and eating them with melted cheese. It’s one of the best (and most delicious) ideas ever. I didn’t take any pictures of our spread, but here’s an image from Wikipedia (we had way more food than that!).
Then we all sang Christmas carols together. This was a really special part of the day for me. Doris plays classical guitar and I sing, so we practiced beforehand and did a surprise duet performance of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht) in English and German. “Silent Night” is an important song here, as it was written in Austria, in a tiny village near Salzburg (a movie was just made telling the backstory). Performing this song for my host family was a small way to show my gratitude for the way they have opened their homes and lives to me.
After the extended family festivities were over, we returned home. Earlier that day, while Anna napped, we had decorated the Christmas tree. Now, Anna (summoned by the tinkling bell that means the Christkind has visited) saw the tree for the first time–and the presents underneath.
By the way, I witnessed one of the most terrifying and beautiful Christmas traditions ever–hanging sparklers on the tree and lighting them. It’s like little exploding stars, but I was holding my breath the whole time hoping that there wouldn’t be a fire!
It was a perfect day, and I would have been totally satisfied…but Christmas wasn’t over yet! On the 25th, while the family went to visit another set of grandparents, I spent the day in beautiful Salzburg. It’s only an hour on the train from Linz and still had its Christmas market open. The weather was gorgeous, and I was able to get one last Glühwein!
I went inside the gorgeous Salzburgerdom (cathedral), and attended the daily 3:00 concert at the Residenz. It was a lovely hour of classical music on the harpsichord, mostly by composers associated with Salzburg (like Haydn and, of course, Mozart).
It was unseasonably warm, so I got to see kids skating on a half-melted rink (the inch or two of water didn’t seem to put a damper on their fun), as well as some much needed sunshine after the weeks of mostly-foggy days. After a few hours, I bade good-bye to Salzburg and ended my happy Austrian Christmas.
Except that there was one more surprise in store…
On the morning of the 26th, my host family suggested that we visit the local thermal bath, Bad Schallerbach! I had no idea what to expect, except for pools of warm water from the natural springs, but it was enormous (and we only visited one of the three sections!). There were two indoor pools with color changing lights, a swim up bar, a grotto where you could swim around an enclosed tank of tropical fish, two outdoor pools, and lots of small mineral pools intended to help with different ailments, from breathing trouble to circulation. It was amazing.
My favorite part was swimming outside. Even though the air was near freezing, the water was warm, and the steam rising up gave the place an unearthly, magical feeling, especially when it was dark and the colored lights were on.
I can’t believe this place exists within biking distance of my house, and costs relatively little (17 euro for a four hour ticket). It was an awesome way to relax the day after Christmas. I had a blast, and I will definitely be back!
Overall, my Austrian Christmas was everything I could have hoped for. I experienced a new culture through the eyes of the incredible family with whom I will be living for the next year. I tried so many good foods, met so many kind people, and saw some amazing places. This Christmas was like no other, and while I miss my family and friends back home, I can’t believe how lucky I was to experience it. Frohe Weihnachten, y’all!