The holidays are typically about staying in your comfort zone. Though my family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, the big hype is usually Hanukkah. Every year we invite at least 20-40 of our closest friends, eat endless amounts of latkes and bagels, say the Hanukkah prayer and enjoy each other’s company for hours.
This year is slightly different since I’m studying in Austria. Well, it’s actually more than slightly different. For one, it’s the first Christmas I’m not with my family. It’s also my first time not celebrating Hanukkah unless you count my family and I lighting the menorah over Skype a Hanukkah celebration. This was my first holiday season outside of my comfort zone.
Every country has their own customs. Growing up, I thought Santa Claus was a universal thing and that everyone shared the myth of him and his reindeer. However, in Austria, there is no fat, old man in a red suit who stuffs himself down your chimney. Instead they have Christkind. Christkind is an almost angelic figure who comes through the window to deliver your gifts.
The best word in German to describe an Austrian Christmas is “gemütlichkeit.” This phrase is a very well known here and basically translates to coziness, relaxing or just anything to do with being comfortable.
We woke up bright and early on the 24th, which is Christmas day here. For breakfast we ate bread with cheese and meat. Bread is a pretty huge part of the culture. At breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can expect lots of bread.
Around 11 or so we arrived at the town square (Hauptplatz) where the crowds warmed up on punsch. This warmed juice with alcohol is a Christmas custom. Punsch comes in many flavors, but marillen (apricot) is the more traditional one.
The streets are closed off at this point and a bunch of men on horses come trotting down to the middle of the block. A wagon pulls up with a very talented elderly man and a woman who start singing the infamous Christmas carol “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). A candle lighting ceremony (“Light of Peace from Bethlehem”) begins shortly after. We carry our lit candles back home.
Every year children reenact the story of Mary and Joseph at the local church. It’s the one day of the year the majority of Korneuburg goes and watches the show for half an hour or so. It was one of my first times being in a church for some kind of religious ceremony. I admit, I was a tad clueless about the story of Mary and Joseph myself, so it was nice to finally see it in person.
We returned home and my host sisters and I all waited in the younger one’s bedroom for twenty minutes. The sound of a bell was our cue to come to the living room. The Christmas tree (christbaum) was decked out with lit candles, süßigkeiten (candy) and ornaments. Handmade weihnachtskekse (cookies) lay on the table, my host mom played her flute and we sang German Christmas carols together as a family for half an hour.
The rest of my holidays went by fast. Sylvester (New Years) is a pretty big event as well. Every year on New Year’s Day there is a huge concert in Vienna that lasts for three hours and is the highlight of the day. You supposedly have to buy the tickets five years in advance and the “cheapest” ticket is 1,000 euro (1,051 USD). But, no need to fret or empty your wallets. There is a live TV version, as well.
January 3rd through 5th are the days of the three kings. Children of each town dress up as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (the three Wise Men). It surprised me that the children dressed as Balthazar — a biblical king from Africa — had their faces painted black. I realize this ancient tradition isn’t intended to mock Africans, but it did make me uncomfortable. As someone who stands with the Black Lives Matter community, it felt strange seeing “blackface” in person.
Though it isn’t a practice I personally agree with, I reminded myself I am living in and learning about a different culture. These were innocent kids and to them, this holiday is an old tradition of playing dress up and collecting money for charity.
Winter break of 2016 has been different, but a good experience. I learned new ways to celebrate the holidays while reflecting on my own traditions as well. So far, 2017 has started on a pretty good note and I’m hoping it’ll keep going up from here.