As I prepare Dave-Man and my own expectations for the holidays abroad, I've discovered how wonderfully unique my family's Christmases were — half Austrian, half American. I've had to identify what will be different from the typical American experience and by helping him understand what to expect can set us up for a successful time. As I've collected the info for him I've gotten so excited to experience a fully and truly Austrian Weihnachten:
Advent: During the four weeks before Christmas families make an Advent Wreath from evergreen twigs and decorate it with ribbons and four candles. Each Sunday in Advent, an additional candle is lit and a song or two might be sung along with a small devotion preparing for Christmas! When all 4 are lit, Christmas has arrived.
Nikolaus Tag: December 6th is celebrated by gifts and visits from St. Nicholas, either in person or through gifts left in shoes set in front of the door.
Christkindlmarkt: I've mentioned these before. They take place in most towns. Booths sell Christmas decorations, food and Glühwein (sweet, hot mulled wine). Larger cities have massive markets and draw people from all over the world to visit them.
Weihnachtsbaum: Traditionally the Christmas tree is set up and decorated on Christmas Eve. Decorations include candles, sparklers, gold and silver ornaments and stars made from straw.
Christkindl: Some children believed that the (Christchild) decorates the tree. It leaves gifts to children on Christmas Eve under the tree. It is depicted as a golden-haired, winged baby, who symbolizes the new born Christ.
Heilige Abend: Christmas in Austria truly begins on the afternoon of Christmas Eve when the tree is finally lit for the first time. After a church service, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. My family over there eats Steinplatte — a type of fondue/self serve hibachi — where different meats are cooked at the table on a flaming hot stone plate. Various sauces, breads and salads are also served. Dessert is Austrian Christmas cookies 'Weihnachtskekse'. After some carols and a reading of the Christmas story, gifts are opened around the Christmas Tree.
Stille Nacht: Silent Night, written in Austria in 1818, holds a special place in Austrian hearts as the ultimate Christmas carol. It's so special to me that I shy away from listening to the song before Christmas Eve and dislike most recordings I've heard of it because they just aren't good enough.
Neujahrskonzert: Every New Years Day in Vienna the world-famous classical music New Years Concert takes place during the morning. It's hosted in the 'Großer Saal' (large hall) of the Musikverein, the concert hall of the Viennese Music Association. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra plays music from the Strauss family: Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss. It is famous for its waltz music. During the last piece played, An Der Schönen Blauen Donau, the first couple notes are interrupted by applause from the audience and the musicians then wish them a Happy New Year —"Prosit Neu Jahr!"
Growing up these celebrations seemed so ordinary. Only as I discover how different my experience was, do I realize what a neat and special heritage I have.