On the twelfth day of Christmas, I thought I’d share some snippets of my holiday with you, since many people have asked about the local customs and how I experienced it for the first time.
At Christmas time, the city of Graz and its surrounding villages were oozing with charm. Throughout the month of December, it was a delight to witness the transformation of town squares, storefronts, and living rooms to reflect the merriment of the season. I found the atmosphere no more beautiful than Manhattan’s 5th Avenue window displays or the glowing suburban neighborhoods of my Christmases past. But this year, the wonder came not from sparkle and lights but from long standing traditions and a personal touch that is evident in all things Austrian.
The Season of Advent
Austrians observe the season of Advent, the period of anticipation and reflection beginning four weeks before Christmas (Weihnachten). Many families display an Advent wreath (Adventkranz) with four candles, each one ignited on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.
To count the days until Christmas, our nephews opened one window every day on their Advent calendar to reveal a small chocolate treat. It brought back memories of my childhood and our Advent calendars. I remember waiting for my mom to come home from work each night so we could open them together. When we got impatient, we’d sneak a peek behind the tiny numbered doors, as if she wouldn’t notice.
Nikolaus and Krampus: Good vs. Evil
On December 5th and 6th, St. Nikolaus the robed saint and Krampus the horned beast make the rounds. Nikolaus rewards the well-behaved children with a small sack of oranges, nuts, and figs, while Krampus scares the naughty ones with a crack of his whip, threatening to snatch them away to the underworld. In our small town, the visitation is very organized. If parents would like Krampus and Nikolaus to stop by their home, they simply sign up at the town hall. Supposedly attitudes towards Krampus are slowly changing; I noticed that some parents choose not to terrify their kids with the demonic Krampus, opting for a solo visit from Nikolaus. Nevertheless, the Krampus figure is still popular among teens and other townsfolk who take advantage of the occasion to drink and parade through the town in Krampus masks. This haunting procession is an actual event called Perchtenlauf, scheduled in different villages with great turnouts.
The Cookie Requisite
“Tis the season for baking!” proclaim the entrances to the shops, their shelves teeming with shiny confectioner’s gadgets along towering pallets of sugar, flour, and nuts. It’s pretty intimidating for someone of my paltry baking skills.
Families bake hundreds of assorted Christmas cookies for treats to serve visiting guests or to bring as gifts. The typical Austrian cookie basket features butter cookies, some dipped in chocolate, others sandwiched with jam. There’s also lebkuchen (gingerbread), vanillekipferl (almond crescents), and coconut balls. I find it amusing that you’re offered the same exact cookies from neighbors and colleagues that you lovingly labored over in your own kitchen. The cookies will be devoured without a second thought, it’s the gesture that’s endearing.
Weihnachtsmarkts – Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Weihnachtsmarkts or Christkindlmarkts are seasonal outdoor markets that pop up in town squares at the beginning of Advent. Graz boasts 14 different markets featuring artisan crafts, children’s toys, ornaments, and concessions. A walk through the markets makes for a really nice outing that brings everyone out. In fact, one Sunday evening I hardly recognized our darling Graz swaying from so much commotion. The hallmark of the Christmas market experience is savoring a piping hot mug of glühwein (mulled wine) or most (cider) while huddling up with your friends and taking in the atmosphere.
December 24th – O, Holy Night
Christmas Eve is called Heiligabend (literally “Holy Night”), and it’s the biggest day of the celebration. This is when Austrians put up their trees. *Spoiler Alert* In families with children, parents secretly decorate the tree and place the gifts underneath while the kids are visiting relatives or somehow occupied. When the tree is ready, the parents ring a bell to announce that Christkind has visited the home, leaving behind a beautiful tree and presents. Christkind is the gift-bearing representation of the Christ Child, often portrayed with wings. *Another Spoiler Alert* That’s right boys and girls, there is no Santa Claus here in Austria. Whether he exists elsewhere is up to you. What I do know is that most Austrians belong to team Christkind. The mere mention of Santa Claus is often answered with a scornful remark about the Americanization and commercialization of Christmas. Just a gentle warning.
As odd as it sounds, the late arrival of the tree was one of the most perceptible differences for me this Christmas. Like many Americans, I’m accustomed to the December-long presence of a tree asserting the feeling of Christmas in my home. Decorating it with my family was always my favorite part; I can’t fathom the idea of children not taking part in its decoration. On the other hand, waiting until the 24th for a tree wasn’t all that bad. It was nice to be freed of the accumulation of gifts underneath it. Without the piles of packages staring at you day after day, there was a less pervasive sense of materialism in the home. In the true spirit of Advent, the anticipation maintains focused on the birth of Christ and celebrating the joy of giving and the love of family.
On the evening of the 24th we gathered in our living room with Juergen’s parents to sing songs and listen to Christmas readings. It was intimate and thoughtful. I envisioned little Juergen and his brother as jungs, singing along with Monika and her guitar. After opening presents, Juergen and I attended 10 p.m. mass at our town church. At the end of the mass, the lights dimmed in the cold chambers of the church, and we all sang “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night” which originated in Austria).
December 25th and onward
In the days following, we exchanged visits with friends, neighbors, extended family who also spent Christmas quietly. We gobbled up more cookies, lamented the absence of snow, and chatted about upcoming vacation plans.
Back in New Jersey, my parents were hosting another raucous family reunion. We were able to catch them on Skype as more relatives were arriving. It was heartwarming to “be with everyone” when they celebrated Christmas, if only in the virtual sense for a brief time. It was also heart-aching not to be able to hug them, to finish off bottles of wine with them, to play board games with them, to eat Filipino holiday pastries, then schlep to the movies in a crowded caravan.
During moments like these I remind myself that for everything that I’m missing out on, I’m gaining something beautiful here. Yes, I wish I could have been in NJ– it’s a normal feeling– but not in place of the wonderful time I had here. It was our time to have our first Christmas together in our new home, and it couldn’t have been better . This perspective has helped me deal with the complexities and dualities of expat life. The same applies to my new role as a spouse. After my nine months here, I’m learning how to live openly and presently, how to deal with the countless contradictions I encounter each day, how to shake off the ones that aren’t worth the worry. I believe that the Austrian and pre-Austrian parts of me can exist together healthily and unapologetically. This has been the most incredible and eventful year of my life. I’m looking forward to more growth and the opportunities that the next year will bring. And I wish you all the best that 2015 has to offer you!