Christmas is just around the corner and if you live in Austria, you have probably started to celebrate “Advent”. It is similar to America, where the Christmas season starts after Thanksgiving at the end of November. But for us, obviously, the kick-off event is not Thanksgiving, it is the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
It may sound a bit naive but when I grew up, I thought that firstly, Christmas is the same everywhere and, secondly, is celebrated around the world. This was the image that was spread on TV with American movies. (Home Alone was one of “the” movies in the early nineties.) Austria 20 years ago was very different. Due to the language barriers, we have never been a traditional “immigration country” like the United Kingdom, for example. And many of the migrants who came to Austria from Eastern Europe also celebrated Christmas in more or less a similar way. Hence, I was not exposed to many other traditions. But the more I travelled and when I moved abroad, I not only learned more about other festivals – from Diwali, to Ramadan, to Hanukkah – but I also realised that there are many similarities.
As much as we loved watching Home Alone, we also were obsessed with Halloween. In Austria, traditionally there was no such thing as Halloween. Decades ago, there was a tradition to walk through the town holding pumpkins lit up with candles. But in contrast to the American tradition, people did not demand treats in exchange for being nice. When I was about 12, we started to organise our own Halloween and walked through the neighbourhood like American children do. A bit later, Halloween became a big commercial event and parties also became the norm. Before that, we traditionally only dressed up for Carnival in February. Until today, the costumes for Halloween and Carnival differ: you can be anything at Carnival but Halloween has to be something scary.
One of my fondest memories of my childhood Christmas is actually the weeks leading up to Christmas. My grandmother or my mum used to light the candles on the Advent wreath, read out Christmas stories and sing Christmas songs with us. We baked Christmas biscuits together and sometimes we even had snow in December and went for walks or built snowmen. We also wrote our letters with our wish list to Christkind which we had to leave at the windowsill. The next day, the letters had disappeared and we had to promise to be nice until Christmas if we wanted Christkind to bring some of the things on our list. One note about the Advent wreath: this wreath has four candles and each Sunday leading up to Christmas, we light a candle. This tradition together with the Advent calendar is a popular thing to shorten the waiting time for the children.
One of the biggest differences to the Christmas in American movies is that there is no Santa Clause in Austria. We have Christkind. It is a mystic character and we actually do not know what Christkind looks like – most probably like an angel. We do have somebody like Santa Clause but earlier in the month: December 6th is St. Nicholas Day. On that day or the night before, St. Nicholas – known as “Nikolaus” – visits the children at their homes. He comes with a golden book and reads out if they were naughty or nice during the past year. If they were nice, they get small presents and treats, such as chocolate, mandarins or peanuts. If someone was really naughty, we have Krampus. This guy looks a bit like satan (very, very scary) and he threatened to beat the naughty children. No joke! You can check Christoph Waltz explaining Krampus here. But most of the time, Nikolaus decides that all the children were nice and that there is no need to scare them.
In Austria we decorate the tree on the December 24th. Some people decorate it the day before if they have to work on Christmas Eve. December 24th used to be the longest day of the year for us children. We left the house in the morning and stayed with my grandmother. We watched movies all day long, ate biscuits and played games. The children do not get to see the decorated tree until the “Bescherung”. This is our main event on Christmas Eve. At around 5-6 pm, the children come back home and if the small bell rings, they can enter the room and see lit up the tree which Christkind brought for them. Presents are also exchanged on Christmas Eve and some families have a feast on that day while others have a simple dinner and the real feast on Christmas Day.
I remember the whole time to be magical. It was this excitement – has Christkind already visited our house and finished the tree? I always wondered how fast Christkind and the helpers decorated everything given they had to go to all my friends’ houses as well. I could not sleep the night before. I guess that a lot of the Christmas magic is lost when we get older. Once I discovered that Christkind was not real, it was still a big event but not as exciting as before.
What I find most interesting when comparing different cultures is that at first sight, we may only see what is different. But while the original motive for the festival may differ, there are many similarities. One of the most obvious ones is the tradition to light candles: Advent is the time of lighting candles for Christians, Jews light candles during Hanukkah and Hindus celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, for example.
I am not a religious person and I consider events like Christmas a cultural festival. Whatever we all may celebrate, the main idea is mostly the same: take a step back, be thankful for what we have and enjoy the time with our loved ones.
If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you all a beautiful Advent. But irrespective of the Christmas season, I wish you all that in a year like this you can spend it with your loved ones – in person or online.