Austria’s Unique 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.
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.
Traditions from Way Back When
Salzburg Christmas Market © Österreich Werbung / Bryan Reinhart
Advent: A Magical Time
The first Sunday of Advent rings in the festive season and the “Christkindlmärkte” (Christmas markets) open their doors.
Children with peace light © SalzburgerLand Tourismus / Achim Meurer
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.
Christmas custom in SalzburgerLand © SalzburgerLand Tourismus / Eva-Maria Repolusk (Eva trifft.)
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.
Manger in Achensee/Achenkirch © Stille Nacht – Tirol Werbung GmbH / Krippe Achensee Achenkirch / Michael Grössinger
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.
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.
Nativity Scenes in the Salzkammergut Region
Every year from 24 December to 2 February (Candlemas Day), many farmers and nativity scene carvers 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.
"Perchten" Chasing Out Winter Spirits
- Folklore in Lower Austria / Perchten © Österreich Werbung / Gregor Semrad