by Sophie Spiegelberger & Dardis McNamee

The holidays are a time when people turn to tradition, taking a break from the mundane to come together with loved ones and celebrate… But celebrate what exactly?

The most popular holiday in the West, Christmas’ origin lies in a Biblical tale of the birth of Jesus, making it a festival of hope, new life and the possibility of redemption.  It folds the pleasures of the feast with the ancient festivals of light in the darkest days of winter. 

Across Europe, nearly everyone celebrates, whether religious or not. Christmas in its various forms is central to cultures across the continent, and is part of community life, seen in many countries as a season rather than a holiday, central to life in the early weeks of winter, with church processions carol singing and Hausmusik, Saints Nicholas or Lucia, and Christmas markets that bring life to the streets and squares of almost every town.

Christmas in Austria

In Austria, Christmas largely revolves around the countdown to the 24th, celebrated by lighting a candle for each of the four Sundays in Advent, and steaming mugs of Glühwein at the Punsch stands that raise money for charity. On Christmas Eve, families gather for the lighting of the tree – with real candles – and churches are full at midnight, for high masses with choir and orchestra. As in any other country, food is central to the festivities. A stuffed goose with a side of red cabbage is an Austrian Christmas staple, while desert might be a Strudel stuffed with chestnuts or plums and an array of cookies in all shapes and flavors.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents …”

So yes, Christmas revolves around tradition, family, being grateful, and appreciating others. But if you believe the advertising, it is also about the spending: buying presents and taking advantage of holiday sales. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents …” is the opening sentence of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. That was 1868 and the sentiment couldn’t be more true today.

At least in the United States, where in 2018 holiday spending was a record-breaking $1 trillion, with American adults spend on average $920 each on gifts for Christmas — more than a quarter of annual revenues in retail.  This is not happenstance, but the result of a concerted marketing that encourages people to spend, spend, spend. Where most countries speak of their citizens, Americans are understood first as consumers.

Happily, in Austria, the holidays are far less commercial, with spending about €365 a head.  And seem to leave far more time for hanging out in the festive and convivial mood.

(Foto: flickr.com/hickory hardscrabble)

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