A look at how Christmas is celebrated halfway across the world

“What, there’s no Santa Claus?!” a classmate uttered, completely bewildered.

I guess I surprised her when I said that Santa Claus does not make a stop in my home country, Austria.

But not to worry – we still get our presents. The Austrian counterpart to Santa Claus is called Christkind – a little angel with blond curls who brings presents to boys and girls. Although, unlike Santa, Christkind has no helpers in his workshop.

My Mom always told my sister and I that the Christkind was too busy to bring presents to children all over the world so Santa Claus helped out and delivered presents to children in North America.

When my sister and I were little, we used to look through the windows on Christmas Eve, hoping to catch a glimpse of Christkind. I remember my mom saying to us, “Look, girls, did you just see the Christkind flying by?”

Of course, I never saw it. But I did not want to be the only one who again did not see the Christkind (because my sister always pretended to see it), so I said yes.

A traditional Austrian Christmas tree.
Photo provided by: Verena Isak.
Also, it is the Christkind’s job to bring the Christmas tree to each house where it is decorated with candles, small bells, crystal balls, straw stars and chocolate. On the top of the tree, there’s a star.

Christkind’s responsibilities

I’ve observed that in Canada, Christmas trees are put up early in December (and some in November), and I’m told they are taken down toward the end of the Christmas holidays.

In Austria, Christmas trees are not put up until Christmas Eve. And, we normally take them down on Three Wise Men Day – which is Jan. 6.

When I was a young girl, my Mom used to put a little golden star sticker on the table each morning – telling us that the Christkind is watching if we are good or not. She had three different sizes of those star stickers. The size of star we were given each morning depended on how well behaved we were the day before.

I remember the time when I received no star three days before Christmas, and the next day I received just half a star. I was very afraid that the Christkind was not going to bring me any presents that year.

Advent season in Austria

One of my favourite memories of Christmas in Austria, beginning in November, is the Christmas markets that open across the country. One of the biggest – and in my opinion the most beautiful – Christmas markets is the one which is on the square in front of City Hall in Vienna.

Another memory is the punsch – a hot drink with tea, fruits, spices and rum – and the glühwein – a hot drink with tea, wine, rum and spices – which are a big part of the Christmas season.

I’ve observed that most Austrians celebrate the Advent season, and Canadians seem unaware of it. Most people have an Advent wreath at home and light each of the four candles (one per Sunday) the four weeks before Christmas.

As well, most Austrian children have an Advent calendar – a large card with 24 little doors. Each day throughout the month of December children open the appropriate door and eat the chocolate hiding behind each door.

Nikolaus and Krampus watch over us

Austrians have another tradition which I always found delightful, and still look forward to each year. On Dec. 6, the day of Saint Nicholas, Nikolaus makes his rounds while wearing a glittering red bishop’s robe, and hands out candy, apples, oranges or nuts to “good” children. He is accompanied by the devilish Krampus.

I remember being told in kindergarten that the Krampus collects the children who have not behaved and takes them away with him. Therefore, I was extremely afraid every time someone dressed up as a Krampus came to our door.

Christmas celebrations

My Canadian friends have told me they gather with their families on Christmas Day. For me, and for all Austrians, the most important day is Christmas Eve. Families gather together, sing Christmas songs, read stories, and enjoy being together.

We open our gifts before eating the Christmas Dinner. In my family, we eat smoked salmon. Fish is a traditional food for Christmas. The most traditional is fried carp. On Christmas Day we usually celebrate with the whole family at my grandma’s house and eat fried carp with rice or potatoes and salad.

I really enjoy the pre-Christmas period in Canada with all the Christmas decorations, lights and the snow. Unfortunately, I am not able to experience a Canadian Christmas this year because I am leaving right before Christmas.

Still, I am excited for Christmas in Vienna and hope that the Christkind has not forgotten about me.

visak@cjournal.ca