This month is characterized by customs and events of the Advent and Christmas seasons, both consisting of private and public elements.
Much can be seen and heard in the streets, for example special Christmas street-lighting and seasonal arrangements in the shop windows, many figures disguised as Santa Claus, Christmas carols, songs and music, official Christmas trees (e.g. in front of Vienna City Hall as well as in many squares) and smaller trees with electric candles in front gardens and on balconies. Christmas markets and Christmas cribs are crowded with visitors during the whole Advent season. The main traditional Christmas market in Vienna has been held on the Rathausplatz (City Hall Square) since 1975, running parallel to a special programme of events in the City Hall itself. Smaller Christmas markets add to the atmosphere of the season in other city districts. Worth visiting are the Spittelberg market in Vienna and the market on the Färberplatz in Graz (both specializing in arts and crafts), and the market on the Freyung (Vienna) in front of the “Schottenkirche”, or Scottish Church, which was in fact founded by Irish missionaries (Ireland was known in Latin at that time as “Scotia Major”).
The “Grafenegger Advent” at Grafenegg Castle (Lower Austria) combines an Advent or Christmas market with various special events and is also of particular note.
Christmas Crib Plays And Exhibitions
From the first Sunday in Advent until Candlemas, February 2nd, the “Steyrer Kripperl” (Christmas Crib of Steyr, Upper Austria) can be visited. Such a crib was first mentioned in this town in 1579. Today, it is almost the last surviving marionette-theatre, where puppets are used. The play contains many scenes from folklife in Steyr, so that the visitor gets a good idea of what daily life was like in former times.
During the Advent season, a Christmas play is also performed at Traismauer (Lower Austria). The text of the play dates back to 1810, and includes some older parts. The play consists of nine scenes which reflect to a certain extent the folklife of Lower Austria.
In the first two weeks of December, an exhibition of Christmas cribs is arranged in the crypt of St. Peter’s in the Inner City of Vienna. Old and new cribs are on exhibition, the new ones being the result of the efforts of the “Society of the Friends of the Christmas Crib” which encourages people to make their own cribs.
A “real” Christmas play is performed every fourth year at Bad Ischl (Upper Austria); the last performances were in the season 1991/92. This play is part of the tradition that was cultivated at the monasteries of Lambach and Kremsmünster, and was encouraged and stimulated by the Jesuits of Traunkirchen.
The people in the Salzkammergut (Styria and Upper Austria) are especially fond of themes connected with Christmas, a predilection reflected in the great number of Christmas carols and shepherd songs, in the production of Christmas cribs (carved in wood) and in visiting the many cribs displayed in churches and private houses between December 24th and Candlemas (February 2nd). Visitors should try Ebensee, Bad lschl and Hallstatt for private cribs, and the parish church of Bad Ischl and the cathedral of Linz for church cribs.
Christmas cribs in private houses have a long tradition in the Tyrol, too, especially in the so-called “Krippendorfer” (crib-villages) of Thaur, Rum, Zirl, and Götzens. This dates back to Emperor Joseph II, who prohibited the display of Christmas cribs in the churches.
Barbara, Patron Of The Miners
There are a number of notable customs during the Advent season, especially those connected with December 4th (St. Barbara) and December 6th (St. Nicholas). St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and similar professional groups. Most of the bigger mining companies organize Barbara ceremonies. At the “Erdölpfarre” (petrol parish) of Mazen (Lower Austria), a big Barbara ceremony has been held on the first Sunday in Advent since the 1950s, sponsored by the ÖMV (Austrian Petroleum Company), including a mass service, concerts etc. At the “Montanuniversität” (University for Mining) at Leoben (Styria), the custom of the “Ledersprung” (jumping over the leather) is pursued on the Sunday nearest to December 4th, the feast of St. Barbara. This jumping over the leather (the leather was part of the traditional working outfit of the miner) represents an essential part of mining customs, and can be traced back to the 16th century.
Customs connected with St. Nicholas are performed on the eve of his feast. On the evening of December 5th, the holy bishop and his companions appear either in the old way (on foot and in small groups) or in more modern processions (often on trucks and with many more masked figures, for example at Laxenburg, Laa an der Thaya and Wolkersdorf, Lower Austria, or at lnnsbruck-Hötting in the Tyrol). These large public processions are recent developments, probably influenced by the Nicholas traditions of the Netherlands. Nicholas processions combined with plays, or at least scenes, can be found at Matrei (Tyrol) under the name of “Klaubaufgehen”, at Oberdrauburg (Carinthia) as “Bartel-Lauf” (“Bartel” being one of the many names for the devil, and derived from the characteristic pointed beard ascribed to him), at Hamburg (Carinthia), at Bad Mitterndorf (Styria) and at St. Roman and Windischgarsten (Upper Austria). The strange mask called “Thomasniklo” (Tomnicholas) known only at Gams near Hieflau (Styria) appears on December 2lst, the feast of St. Thomas, and can be explained by the interlinking of mid-winter customs.
Advent Time Processions
The “Wildes Gjaid” (Wild Hunt) of the Untersberg roams the streets of Salzburg on the second Thursday in Advent, the masks representing figures of the Untersberg legends.
The “Adventsänger” (Advent singers), also called “Anglöckler” can be heard at Oberndorf (Salzburg region). The custom was introduced in 1925, but is based on traditions of local boatmen. In the city of Salzburg, the “Großes Festspielhaus” (Great Festival Hall) presents the “Gang durch den Advent” (celebration of Advent) on the four Saturdays of the Advent period. It is a popular celebration with music and literature on stage. Under the title “Salzburger Advent” (Advent of Salzburg) this type of event is frequently imitated by other cities and towns.
Immediately before Christmas the so-called “Herbergsuchen” (looking for shelter) or “Frautragen” (carrying Our Lady) heightens the expectations which are fulfilled on Christmas Eve. The holy couple, Joseph and Mary (far advanced in pregnancy), are looking for a place where the child could be born. Salzburg is particularly fond of this custom, which culminates when the “Frautafeln” (painted boards showing the scene) are carried into the church on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Is Everywhere
In the afternoon of December 24th, one can hear the “Turmblasen” (playing of melodies on wind-instruments from a tower) in many localities, a custom popular with children.
Christmas remains basically a family celebration. In order to ensure that everyone can enjoy the Christmas spirit, hotels offer special Christmas arrangements, and a Christmas evening is organized by many parishes, often referred to as “Christmas of the lonely”. In Vienna, this is done in Maria Lourdes, 12th district, and St. Gertrud, 18th district.
Christmas also leaves its mark on the newspapers; naturally radio and television are attuned to this feast, and don’t carry any advertising. Worth special mention is “Licht ins Dunkel” campaign (a light for those who live in the dark – a reference to the light from Bethlehem or light of peace).
The 25th of December, in Austria called “Christtag” (Day of Christ), is by tradition a family day. Inns and restaurants are mostly closed. The following day, however, “Stefanitag” (St. Stephen's Day), is the day on which to pay visits and to go out. In former times, the peasants moved their horses on this day. The “Stephaniritt” (St. Stephen’s ride) at St. Stefan im Lavantial (Carinthia) see riding combined with a blessing of the horses. St. Stephen is the oldest patron saint of horses and riders.
Season's Greetings and Good-Luck Charms
Christmas and New Year are the main motives for sending greetings of the season, very often the only correspondence that is still maintained between relatives and friends, Season’s greetings are also presented orally, supported by small good-luck charms bought at special stands (“Neujahrsstandeln”) between Christmas and New Year, or by a cultivated four-leafed clover which represents good luck. In parts of Carinthia, Styria, and the Burgenland, children express their New Year’s wishes in a very special way on December 28th, the feast of the Innocent Children. They roam the streets and visit houses carrying rods and twigs, used for "beating" the people, and at the same time shouting their wishes for a happy New Year, health and good luck. This is also done in the languages of the minorities. The custom is called “Frisch- und G'sund-schlagen” (beating people healthy!)
One More Dance
On the last day of the year, December 31st (St. Silvester), Old Year services in the churches end the year by delivering retrospective summaries. Newspapers and radio and television offer reviews and previews. Groups of hunters shoot farewell to the old year and salute the new one. People at home waiting for the New Year to begin try to find out what lies ahead by various ways and means (for example by “Bleigiessen”, where hot lead is poured into cold water and solidifies immediately; the shape of the solid lead is believed to indicate what will happen next year). Those who do not want to stay at home celebrate in the streets, on St. Stephen’s Square in Vienna, or in inns and restaurants. Some attend “Silvesterballe” (New Year’s balls) such as the “Kaiserball” (Emperor’s ball) at the Imperial Palace, or the “Silvesterball” at Porcia castle at Spittal an der Drau (Carinthia). Another tradition is the staging of the “Fledermaus” operetta by Johann Strauss Junior in both of the Viennese opera houses, the “Staatsoper” and the “Volksoper”, which are also broadcast on television. Tickets for the New Year’s concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra are in heavy demand and have to be ordered well in advance.