Austrian Christmas Traditions

    The Advent period in Austria is also known as “the most peaceful time of the year.“ It is a time of old customs: baking biscuits, putting up Christmas decorations, singing Christmas carols and many other much-loved traditions are shared by families in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

    Austrian Christmas Traditions

    Who Brings the Presents?

    Some things about Christmas are the same everywhere: Enjoying the first snow, experiencing nature on winter walks or days out, wishing for presents. But some things are different in Austria: For instance, did you know that here, it’s not Father Christmas or Santa Claus who brings the presents – it’s the “Christkind” (the Christ Child, Baby Jesus)? The presents are not opened on 25 December, but rather on Christmas Eve. And how do you make sure the Christkind gets it right? In some regions in Austria, children toss their Christmas letter into the fireplace to make their Christmas wishes come true.

    Christmas market, Graz / Graz

    Saint Nicholas and Krampus

    During the Advent time, folkloristic figures may suddenly knock on your front door. Friendly St. Nicholas and his sinister companion Krampus will come to your home to ask which children have been good this year. Traditionally, well-behaved children are rewarded with sweets, peanuts and tangerines, and you might hear a word of warning given to the naughty ones.

    In the “Silent Night” villages in Upper Austria, Tirol and Salzburger Land, this tradition is celebrated on 6 December. Kids eagerly await the much-feared Krampus Day (5 December) when people dress up in scary costumes made of sheepskin, wear carved masks with goat horns and get up to mischief in the village streets.

    Santa Claus and Krampus at the Salzburg Christmas Market

    “Perchten“ Runs in the Alps

    The new year brings the spectacular performances of the “Perchten” in Tirol and SalzburgerLand. Perchten are traditional Alpine figures connected to the mythical goddess Perchta. Often scary and always very loud, with bells and rattles tied around their necks, the so-called “beautiful Perchten” (representing good spirits) and the “ugly Perchten” (representing evil spirits) wander through the villages, chasing away winter spirits. The dress-up consists of carved wooden masks and garments made out of shaggy pelts. Beautiful Perchten known as “Tresterer” stomp their feet and sing for fertility in the municipality of Stuhlfelden in the Pinzgau area of Salzburg. And many villages in Tirol hold elaborate Perchten runs, some of which also feature spectacular fire shows.

    Folklore in Lower Austria / Perchten

    Nativity Scenes

    Every year from 24 December to 2 February (Candlemas Day), farmers and nativity scene carvers in SalzburgerLand open their doors to the public, presenting their artistically-made family cribs. It is also tradition to lovingly make and continuously build “community nativity scenes”.

    In these local nativity scenes, the biblical story of the birth of Christ is embedded in regional surroundings. The tradition of handmade cribs and their private exhibition in the Salzkammergut region originated with a 1782 ordinance by Emperor Joseph II forbidding churches to set up their – often very ornate – nativity scenes. This encouraged skilled craftsmen to build their own nativity scenes and figurines and display them at their homes instead. This, in turn, led to the development of elaborate “landscape nativity scenes” – very large and intricate scenes.

    Lamberg'sche Nativity Scene in the Citys museum in Steyr

    Christmas Eve

    The Christmas tree plays a very important role, and every town sets up its own Christmas tree. A traditional tree is decorated with gold and silver ornaments, stars made out of straw, sweets, and candy wrapped in tinfoil, gilded nuts, decorated ginger bread cookies etc.
    On Christmas Eve, shops close at around 6 p.m. and there are no movie or theatre performances and no concerts. Most bars, restaurants, and night clubs are closed and traffic is almost non-existent. There are, however, some coffeehouses, bars, and restaurants that are open in Vienna.
    Around 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the tree is lit for the first time and the whole family gathers to sing Christmas carols. “Silent Night”, written and performed for the first time on 24 December 1818 by Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, is still the favourite Christmas carol.

    Our favourite Christmas songs from Austria

    Traditions from Way Back When

    Advent: A Time of Magic

    The first Sunday of Advent rings in the festive season and the “Christkindlmärkte” (Christmas markets) open their doors. Find all Austrian Christmas markets here.

    Salzburg Christmas Market

    Light of Peace from Bethlehem

    The Light of Peace is brought to Vienna from Bethlehem on 24 December. People from all over the country come to train stations and churches in Vienna to light their candles and spread the flame across the country.

    Advent Singers in Search for Shelter

    In Upper Austria, carol singers go from house to house, singing songs and telling stories. This represents Josef and Maria looking for a place to stay on Christmas Eve.

    Nativity Scenes in Tirol

    In Tirol, churches, museums and private crib carvers give insight into the tradition of nativity scenes. Carving schools and clubs here even offer courses on how to build one yourself.

    Nativity Scene

    Traditions in the Countryside

    • On 4 December (Saint Barbara’s Feast Day) cherry branches are plucked and laid in water. If the blossoms open up before 24 December, luck and fertility are said to be on the way.
    • The so-called “Kripperlroas” (tour of nativity scenes) in SalzburgerLand takes you to nativity exhibitions held at Salzburger Heimatwerk or at the Salzburg Christmas market.
    • A bit of nature is brought into the home during the festive season when Christmas trees are put up and decorated with beautiful baubles, candles, and sweets.
    • Legend has it that during the 12 wintery December nights after Christmas, Frau Perchta, an Alpine goddess and protector of women, wanders around.
    • Many families in Austria leave their decorated Christmas tree up until Candlemas Day on 2 February.
    Folklore in Lower Austria / Perchten

    Bake Your Own Christmas Biscuits

    • Vanillekipferl - Christmas biscuits
    • Christmas biscuits
    • Baking tray with "Linzer Augen"
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    • Zimtsterne - "Cinnamon stars"

    Download Our Colouring Sheets for Christmas