The Holiday View from Vienna

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First Sign of Christmas

   One of the perks for Third Culture Kids and their families is the opportunity to experience holiday traditions from the country in which you are living.  Vienna certainly has plenty of those around this time of year, and we have become huge fans of celebrating winter holidays the Wien way.

Typically the first sign of the approaching Christmas season for me is the abundance of candy-filled Advent calendars that appear in my local grocery store around early November.  From delectable Lindt chocolate options (our choice this year both for home and a mini version sent to my college girl in the U.S.) to the famous Haribo gummies,  festively adorned cardboard boxes numbered from 1 to 25 and filled with tasty treats behind pop-out doors, give me the first pangs of excitement for what’s to come.

Next on the list is the appearance of the holiday lights. In nearly every shopping area, and in roundabouts on the roads or well-traveled areas, Christmas lights line the streets and provide gorgeous glowing symbols of Christmas in the forms of bells, bulbs, baubles,  and more.  As dusk falls so early this time of year, the glittering lights help to add a dose of cheeriness to the darker days.

And once the lights are up, small stalls start popping up, and a holiday favorite begins.  It’s time for the Christmas Markets, or Christkindlesmarkt (Christ child markets), to get into full swing. This tradition has grown tremendously in our time in Vienna, and tourists flock from far and wide to partake in the variety of Christmas Markets to be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the city.  Small wooden stalls are set up with a variety of vendors selling their wares.  Some items are hand-crafted and very artsy, others are kitschy and mass-produced, but those shopping for special gifts and stocking stuffers are in luck.  Traditional wares include tin ornaments, hats, scarves and mittens, candles, wooden toys, and the all-time favorites, Gluehwein and Punsch.

Gluehwein is a hot, spiced wine, and the cinnamony smell will forever mean Christmas to me.  The holiday season has not begun without a trip to one of the Christmas Markets and the chorus of “cheers and happy holidays” as friends clink festive, decorative mugs that offer warm spirits of both kinds.  Punsch is a spicy, fruity punch, to which is added a variety of Schnapps and liquors to match any taste or desire.  Other tasty staples of the Christmas Market experience are crepes,sausages, hot baked potatoes with toppings, roasted chestnuts and candied nuts, and more.

A couple friends and I had a good laugh as we headed in on the Strassenbahn (incredible public transportation including these Austrian red and white street cars assure that drinking and driving is not a problem), that you know you’ve been in Vienna for a long time when you are discussing the perfect Gluehwein experience, in which the beverage is served not so hot that you can’t take a much awaited sip right away, but hot enough that you get through the whole drink without it going cold on you. The discussion ended with the awareness that we are so fortunate to be able to know THAT MUCH about the ins and outs of guzzling Gluehwein! The Gluehwein aroma starts wafting around mid-November, and early December brings another tradition.

December 5 marks the celebration of Nikolo, or St. Nikolas, who fills the children’s shoes with treats.  As Jimmy Fallon and Christoph Waltz made clear on The Tonight Show this year, Nikolo is accompanied by truly terrifying demonic creatures called Krampus, who are Austria’s answer to the spying elves and coal that go along with being naughty in North America.  We went to our first viewing of these Krampus creatures a couple years ago, and it felt like a heavy metal rock concert, with speakers playing loud, screeching guitar music and fires and flames as accompaniment as these monsters of the night made their way through the crowd, taunting, teasing and jeering (see this link to get a feel for the festivities).  Luckily, the Bishop-like dressed Nikolo next appeared to pass out smiles and candies.  From a child who spent a month having sleepless nights after hearing a radio ad for The Exorcist when I was young, I have no idea how these toddlers and tots make it through a Krampus experience!

Typical in Vienna is spending Christmas eve with family.  The Christmas tree is often decorated on this day, and can be adorned with glowing candles.  We bought the little metal candle holders and small candles one year and tried this tradition, but chose to opt for Christmas lights to lessen the fire fear element of such a tradition. Austrians often opt for fish as a traditional main course, and the Christkind, or Christ child himself, often delivers the Christmas gifts.  Traditional advent wreaths, with four candles, are abundant, and the lighting of the last candle can also be part of the festivities.  We spent a few Christmases at a ski resort in The Alps, and were charmed by all guests gathering around the sitting room tree to sing Stille Nacht (silent night) and receive a visit from a Santa-like figure with a gift for each child.

No sooner are the Christmas Market stalls taken down, then the Sylvester stalls pop up.  Sylvester is the New Year’s celebration, and lots of stands selling traditional “good luck” charms begin hawking their wares.  Nothing says good fortune in the New Year in Vienna like a Gluecksschwein (lucky pig), a lady bug or a chimney sweep. Coming from Cincinnati, where flying pigs are the city’s mascot, lucky pigs were not much of a stretch for me.  Sylvester is not simply about good luck charms, though, throughout the day on December 31, a multitude of stages are set up for bands playing festive music, from traditional waltzes to modern day pop.  People celebrate into the night, and ring in the New Year with an abundance of fireworks.  One of our traditional places to be at 12:00 is outside, on one of the multitude of steep paths in the vineyards around our home, looking down at the beautiful city lit with fireworks of all shapes, sizes and shines.

So just when you think you couldn’t possibly celebrate anymore, the Three Kings come to make a visit around January 6, or Epiphany, and bring an altruistic end to the Christmas season. Three young kids (sometimes a fourth holding a star) go from house to house to wish good tidings (sometimes with a song), bless your house for the year (often with a chalk signing of initials above your door to symbolize the names of the three kings) and collect some coins for a designated charity.

The traditionally Catholic country of Austria has done its best to spread joy, good cheer, and okay, a little bit of Krampus terror, to end the calendar year and start a new one. It’s been a real pleasure to partake in these holiday traditions over the years, and as we draw close to the end of 2014 and get closer to staking our spot on a steep hill to celebrate Sylvester and ring in 2015, I am happy to be able to share a bit of the unique holiday view from Vienna, with all of you. All the best for 2015, and happy holidays from Wien!

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