Austrians just can’t get enough of Christmas, a festivity steeped in tradition and folklore. It is also no one-day affair, but extends beyond the 24th and 25th of December to the feast of St. Steven on the 26th, before continuing to January 6th, when the Christmas trees are taken down on Three Kings’ Day and collected to be burned at Fernwärme Wien for district heating around the city. From the universal to the regional, the prudent to whacky, the Austrian Christmas traditions keep spirits merry as the country takes the fortnight off for the most anticipated holiday on the festive calendar.
Anticipation and reflection are central to the customs of Austrian Advent. The darkest time of the year lends itself to a withdrawal from the external rhythms of a busy life, a pattern of the seasons left from a time when nature set the rules. During Advent, Sundays, in particular, are reserved for sharing time with the family, traditionally singing carols or reading Christmas tales together. One of the most lovely Austrian Christmas traditions is the lighting of the Adventkranz, a wreath of fir branches holding four large candles, to be lit in turn on the Sundays to come.
Tightly entwined in the Catholic iconography of light, with each passing Sunday, a new candle is lit in anticipation of Christ’s birth – the light of the world. On the third Sunday, the candle is often pink, representing exceptional joy and anticipation, in contrast to the other three candles that are a darker purple, colors that correspond to the chasuble worn by the priests serving mass on each respective Sunday – a visualization of time passing in anticipation of the spectacular climax of Christmas Eve.
Every year on the feast of St. Barbara (Dec 4), families head out to the nearest wood just before dawn to collect twigs of forsythia, apple or cherry. These are then placed in a vase so children and adults can patiently wait for their buds to bloom. If the so-called Barbarazweige reveal their flowers before or on Christmas Eve, it mean you’ll have a lucky year, and to some even, a wedding in the family.
This medieval tradition stems from the story of St. Barbara, patron saint of mountaineers. Fleeing from her emperor father who insisted she marry a pagan, she was captured and dragged into captivity when a twig of cherry entangled in her clothing. Alone in her cell, she sprinkled a few drops of water on the twig each day; its miraculous blossoms at the time of her death a reminder of the promise of eternal life. In Austria, the Christmas blossoms symbolize hope and resilience in hard times.
3. Christmas Tree
Despite the fire hazard, many Austrians still trim the tree with real candles set in coiled brass holders weighted to stay upright. Lit for carol singing, with a bucket of water placed strategically nearby, it adds a little edge to the already often chaotic evening with plenty of space for error. Originally a protestant tradition, the broad limbed, richly-scented evergreen hung with gingerbread and chocolate has symbolized constancy and faith ever since 1814, when it was brought to these parts by Berliner Fanny von Arnstein, the great saloniste of the Congress of Vienna.
Today, the tree is typically decorated by the Christkind – the Christ child – rather than Father Christmas, who conveniently floats in through a window opened before the feast on the 24th. Once the Christkind has set the tree aglow, laid down the presents and created a general air of festivity, a bell is rung to call in the wide-eyed children to enjoy the magic of a room transformed. At the center of it all, the glowing Christmas tree.
4. Stille Nacht
Among the most beautiful Austrian Christmas traditions is the Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night). It is more than just arguably the world’s most popular Christmas carol, having been translated into over 300 languages and dialects globally. It is a phenomenon. Every (pandemic-free) year, thousands of visitors flock to Salzburg to visit the birthplace of this magical song, part of Austria’s UNESCO-honored Intangible Cultural Heritage. At the Stille-Nacht-Chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg, a local choir will be on hand to sing the verses by Joseph Mohr and music by Franz Xaver Gruber, expressing a longing for peace and stability on Christmas Eve 1818 following the Napoleonic wars. To this day, Stille Nacht is sung on Christmas in churches across Austria, a testament to its lasting charm.
5. What is a traditional Austrian Christmas dinner?
For Christmas Eve menus, there are several choices. Often beginning with a pumpkin or cabbage soup, many serve a traditional Central European baked or grilled carp, an ancient symbol of Christian devotion. For families in Tirol and Vorarlberg, the highlight is Swiss cheese fondue, made with raclette melted over a flame to dip with wedges of toast. Many Austrians also love roast goose, the local equivalent of an Anglo-American turkey, complete with potato dumplings and red cabbage. But while opinions may differ – and beef or pork is rare – the feast is on the 24th, reserving the 25th for recovery.