This is how you celebrate christmas in Austria: Typical Austrian Christmas traditions of the best time of the year!

written by: Hannes Wagner, 19.11.2020

How does one celebrate Christmas in Austria? Christian Families in Austria still celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in a very traditional kind of way. While the opening of the Christmas markets, so called “Christkindlmarkt”, ring in the merry season, every Sunday families light a new candle on the “Adventskranz” and wait for the “Christkind” while singing Christmas carols, baking cookies and decorating the Christmas tree. If this makes you wonder, keep reading! We will explain those traditions to you in detail.

PRE-CHRISTMAS PERIOD

Christmas Markets

The long awaited pre-Christmas-period starts by mid-November in most Austrian cities. This is also the time when Christmas markets open their doors and welcome young and elderly with fruits dipped in chocolate as well as gingerbread and hot punch.

Advent Wreath

“Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt…” This is a line of one of the most famous german Christmas poems, which is usually told on Sundays when the whole family comes together and lights the candles on the advent wreath. Many Austrian families actually still make their own wreath and even come together with neighbors and friends to make an event out of that. Some even go into the woods and get their own fir branches.
The original advent wreath had 24 candles, today there are usually only four. On every advent Sunday you light a(nother) candle. Some families stayed with traditional colors regarding the candles. Three are supposed to be violet and one, the one for the third advent Sunday, is pink. The third advent is called “Gaudete”.
The symbolic meaning of the advent wreath is to prevail over the darkness of life and while you light the candles there will possibly be some kind of singing, reciting or even praying involved.

Advent Calendar

No matter if self-made or store-bought – an advent calendar cannot be missing during Christmas time. No matter how old you are, you are never too old for an advent calendar!
Starting with December 1st , you get to open one door everyday until the 24th of December and who wouldn’t be pleased to receive a little present every day?
Bonus tip: If you live with friends, you could DIY an advent calendar for your flat and everyday one of you can fill a little box while another one can open it!

Christmas Poems and Carols

In schools as well as kindergarten Christmas traditions are taught. Many children start learning Christmas poems and Christmas carols early on. In most institutions, Saint Nicolaus is also celebrated. By the way: Previously learned poems are often recited by the children on Christmas day, before any presents are allowed to get unpacked!

IMPORTANT DAYS AROUND CHRISTMAS

Barbara Day

The 4th of December marks the Barbara day. It is tradition to pick a branch of an Apple or Cherry tree and take it into your home. If the branch comes into bloom by Christmas day, it is said that the whole family will experience good luck and health in the upcoming year. In some regions, there are rumors that if the branch blooms someone in the family will get married!

Saint Nicholas

The 6th of December is the day of Saint Nicholas. In Austria, it is tradition that children who have behaved well during the course of the year, are being rewarded with tangerines, nuts and chocolate. Some get a visit from Saint Nicholas ”himself” in the afternoon – while others will find some goodies in their shoes by the morning.
The best friend and companion of St. Nicholas is “Krampus”. A character of daunt. A pair of scary horns, fasces and big bells marks his appearance. On the sixth of December, if you listen carefully, you can hear his bells outside – even from a great distance. The tradition all around the “Krampus” is celebrated differently throughout the federal states. Originally, it was believed that the scary character brings luck, blessings and fruitfulness for the next year. Today the “Krampus” upbraids those children who were not well behaved. Krampus parades, events and even coffee party’s are really common in various parts of the countryside.

24th of December

Christmas Eve: Christmas in Austria is celebrated on the evening of December 24th. After spending the day decorating the Christmas tree, cooking a feast or attending a Christmas matin, one living room window is being opened in the evening to allow the “Christkind” to come by and bring the Christmas presents. Yes, you heard right, the presents in Austria are not brought by Santa Claus, but by the “Christkind”!
Of course, every family has its own traditions, dishes and, depending on the age of the children, certain sequences, but here are some classic Austrian traditions that should not be missing on Christmas Eve.

  • Decorating the Christmas tree: The Christmas tree, usually spruce or fir, is decorated for Christmas by December 24th at the latest. With small children this task is often done by the “Christkind” as well and the children are only allowed to see the tree when everything is ready and the presents are under the tree. Other families have made it a tradition to decorate the Christmas tree on the morning of the 24th to get in the mood for the evening with Christmas carols playing in the background.
  • Light of peace: The light of peace is supposed to remind of the birth of Jesus and also stands for a peaceful coexistence. From Bethlehem to the living room of Austria. Since 1986 there has been the custom, which was established by the ORF relief campaign “Licht ins Dunkel”, that a child from Upper Austria has the task of bringing the light from the grotto of Jesus’ birth to Austria. Here the glowing Christmas symbol is passed on and distributed all over the world on Christmas Eve.
  • Christmas Dinner: For many, Christmas dinner is the highlight of Christmas Day and its execution varies more than any other custom that we have presented here. In this aspect, Austrian traditions vary from state to state.
    While in Burgenland people eat goose with red cabbage and potato dumplings, in Styria there are typical Christmas delicacies in the form of cold dishes, because the roast is only served on the 25th here! In Vorarlberg there is raclette, in Carinthia smoked sausages, sauerkraut and dark bread.
    In general, however, one can say that every family has its own “family traditional Christmas dish” which is always served at Christmas.
  • Ringing of the bell: As soon as Christkind has done his work, the candles on the Christmas tree are shining splendidly and all the presents are wrapped up and in the right place, a little bell sounds to signal to the children that the time has come to go and see the Christmas tree.
  • Christmas Presents: As already mentioned, many children in kindergarten or school learn poems, which they recite in front of the whole family on the evening of the 24th. Many families make music and sing together; less musically ones may only listen to their favorite Christmas playlist.
    Typical Christmas carols in Austria are for example: “Silent Night”, “Oh Tannenbaum”, “Alle Jahre wieder” or very rustic and in dialect “Es wird scho glei dumpa” – here you will find lyrics to sing along!
    Only after the songs have been sung and someone has read the Christmas story aloud the presents can be distributed and unpacked!
  • Christmas mass: The holy mass on the night of December 24th to 25th is called Christmas mass – in German “Christmette”. It is one of the two largest nocturnal celebrations in the church year. It traditionally starts at midnight, but many Austrian municipalities have postponed their start a little and already start at 10 or 11 p.m. For many families, attending Christmas mass is a part of their Christmas traditions, regardless of how religious you are, it has become a ritual plenty enjoy.

POST-CHRISTMAS PERIOD

The Christmas season is far from over by December 24th!
In most Austrian households, the celebrations continue with friends and family on the 25th and 26th . Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day are two more days on which people come together, cook again and feast with loved ones. The last cookies find their place in already full bellies and in the evening, everyone falls into bed very happy and very tired.
The Christmas tree will be kept and remain decorated until January 6th , because the 6th marks the day on which the three wise men, Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, go from house to house singing and mark the doors with consecrated chalk. C + M + B framed by the current year is written on the door frame, the letters stand for the blessing “christus mansionem benedicat” which translates to “Christ bless this house”.

An Austrian custom that has almost been forgotten are the “Raunächte”. There are a total of 12 “Raunächte”, the four most important of which are:

  • Thomas Night on December 21st
  • Christmas Eve on December 24th
  • New Year’s Eve on December 31st
  • Epiphany on January 5th.

During these nights, the whole house should be fumigated with incense to keep mischief and evil spirits away and to welcome God’s blessing. By the way, the custom of the “Raunächte” also states that no laundry may be washed or hung on these days.

We hope to give you a little insight into the partly loving, partly old-traditional Christmas customs in Austria. Maybe you would like to try one or the other for yourself during your Christmas season.

We wish you a wonderful pre-Christmas time, despite all the adversities, and a happy Christmas, hopefully with your loved ones!

Questions?

We are happy to help!