An Austrian Christmas Celebration

by Betty Owens

grunau-1355021_1280In the frigid cold of an Austrian winter, several generations ago, one of my forebears cut down a pine tree, dragged it home, and set it up in the main room. The family typically celebrated Christmas in much the same way as we do, but instead of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, the children waited expectantly for the Christkind, or Christ-child. Many Austrians waited until after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, to set up and decorate their tree, complete with gifts underneath. The children woke to a transformed house—a tree lit with candles, bearing gifts. They believed it was all done by the Christkind.

I’m pretty sure they were warned in advance to be very, very good, so the Christkind would visit them. So I suppose you could say parents everywhere practice a little bit of deception in order to provide magic for their children—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the elf on the shelf. I’m saying this with a smile on my face, remembering those magical years in my life. Until my mean older brother told me there was no Santa. I tried hard to go on believing, but he had planted doubt…

The Christkind was depicted as a cherub. This explains some of our present day Christmas ornaments. Here in the States, many families decorate with a crèche, or nativity scene, that includes the Christ child. But we also have cherubs adorning our trees and mantels.

One beautiful and useful custom found in Austria was and is the Christmas Market. They still exist today. In Vienna, it was at one time called the December Market. They believe it began as early as the year 1298. It was the precursor to the modern Christmas Market.

What can you buy at a Christmas market? All sorts of Christmassy gifts, ornaments, and traditional foods and sweets. There are even tours that take you from one city’s market to the next. Is this something you’d like to do? Imagine the scenery as you travel around, soaking up the atmosphere, shopping for that perfect gift. I’d be willing to try it, especially since I know a branch of my ancestry began in Austria. Perhaps I still have distant relatives living there. But I am not as presumptuous as Clark Griswold (Griswold’s European Vacation). I would never walk up to their house and invite myself to stay. 🙂

christmas-treeThe Austrian ties to my family ran deep. For years, my mother insisted on putting the tree up on Christmas Eve. I was a teenager by the time she finally agreed to let us get one on December 21 (her birthday). When we were small, she liked to surprise us with unwrapped toys sitting beneath the tree, something else passed down from her family. I’m not sure why they didn’t wrap gifts. It’s quite possible they simply couldn’t afford the wrappings. Or maybe they didn’t want the clean-up.

Austria is only one of many branches on my family tree. There’s also a heavy Scot branch, a smaller English one, and some Irish thrown in for good measure. Some of my Dad’s forebears from Scotland actually originated farther north. They were Vikings, and I don’t suppose they celebrated Christ’s birth until much later—after the move to Scotland.

Writing Prompt: I helped the children make paper chains and snowflakes, while we waited for the long, long day to end. Mama baked ginger cookies to decorate the tree. Would there even be a tree? We were never quite sure when Dad went out early in the day, if he’d find a suitable one. Our hopes were stretched taut and near the breaking point when little brother heard a noise.