Many people have asked me, over the past couple of days, about my thoughts after spending Christmas in Austria for the first time. I actually really enjoyed the experience and decided to write this little post to elaborate on some of the reasons, why I feel so positive about it.
Keeping the spirit alive
The Christmas celebration extravaganza starts in Salzburg quite early and I think it is very strongly correlated with the period of Advent, which lasts for four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Having spent Christmas in countries such as the U.S., U.K., Australia and, naturally, Poland, I have a pretty good idea how commercialized Christmas can actually get. I think that Anglo-Saxon countries are definitely leading the way when it comes to monetization of the holiday (think about this: holiday retail sales in the U.S. amount to over $600bn each year). They are also strongly promoting the politically correct ‘Happy Holiday Season’ approach, which seems pretty washed out from any meaning to a person that associates Christmas (or any other religious holiday in that period) even remotely with some spiritual experience.
Salzburg very much surprised me. It is, after all, a very rich area in a Western European country – so I did not expect locals to cultivate traditions religiously. I was quite mistaken, as the city and its inhabitants actually managed to keep the religious context of Christmas very much alive.
For instance, throughout December, on my way to work, I saw plenty of little kids coming back from the everyday morning mass. They were holding their hand-made lampoons, that I also remember from my childhood, but haven’t seen in the last fifteen- twenty years. It brought back a lot of memories.
Another example of this fact was that a lot of the museums in the city adjusted their opening times to match the Advent calendar, perhaps expecting people to have more time for leisure – related activities or just promoting the life of the mind and soul 🙂 I was, quite frankly, surprised with the common use of the word Advent across calendars and schedules in Salzburg. It has such a strong religious connotation (its meaning is probably foreign to many people in Western countries) that it unambiguously underlined that December is a period important for its religious holidays in the first place (not just some vague holiday season).
Christmas markets and decorations
The Christmas spirit was very much visible in the plethora of decorations I observed in shops, restaurants and people’s homes. Believe it or not, but I haven’t seen a single Santa figure anywhere! Most of the ornaments focused around nativity, baby Jesus and angels – another thing I found quite surprising.
One of the particularly awesome elements of the Advent period was definitely the presence of Christmas markets. There were three or four of them that I visited in Salzburg. Perhaps the most spectacular of them was the one taking place in the Hellbrunn Palace gardens, with tens of little shops selling handicraft, ornaments and seasonal snacks.
I was also quite surprised with the fact that Salzburg has an actual Christmas Museum. The collection includes some 19th and early 20th century Christmas decorations and is pretty informative when it comes to regional traditions and heritage. It helped me figure out what is Krampus and why are Austrians so obsessed with Advent calendars 🙂
Christmas wouldn’t be complete without some glühwein and punsch. Those concepts weren’t entirely foreign to me, but never before have I had this much of mulled wine in a public space 🙂
I devoted an entire post to the character of Krampus as I found it one of the most surprising elements of the Advent period in Austria. The idea of having a demon-like figure accompanying St. Nicolas and punishing misbehaving children is both creepy and fascinating at the same time. I enjoyed looking into the history and cultural heritage of this tradition (that might extend beyond Christmas itself).
One thing that I found quite surprising about Christmas food specialties here was the popularity of Panettone. Panettone is a cake originating from Milan, that’s made of yeast dough and dried fruit. I have no clue how it made its way up to Salzburg, but I think one can consider it an Alpine tradition, perhaps?
That is pretty much my list of Austrian (or Salzburger) Christmas specialties that made the holiday and weeks leading up to it pretty special and memorable.