Christmas around the world: Austria

Jack Schofield discusses the (sometimes terrifying) festive traditions of alpine Austria

Source: Wikimedia Commons

To describe Christmas as one holiday alone is perhaps an understatement. In Britain, it much rather feels like a series of holidays, a weeks-long chain of rituals, that monopolise December and the proceeding months. This is a sentiment, as I have realised during my year abroad in the sadly-not-yet-so-snowy Alpine mountains, that seems all the more true of Austria and its captivating traditions.

The ritual of Krampusläufe (the Krampus processions) is the stand-out example. Sankt Nikolaus (Saint Nicholas, of course) may gladly take responsibility for the good children, but it is Krampus who is left to deal with all the bad ones. It soon transpires that Santa giving naughty children coal simply does not suffice for these hardy mountain dwellers.

Throughout folklore, Krampus has whisked disobedient children away in sacks to be drowned, or taken them straight to hell (they really don’t hold back, apparently…) and the practice of today is not so thematically dissimilar. In early December, a Krampuslauf takes place in many towns where adults dress up as the demonic part-human, part-goat, and wholly-terrifying horned beast. Parents take along their children to the ocassion, one can only assume, out of a desire to see them scared absolutely shitless. The night-time event features fire and sticks with which the Krampuses (Krampusses? Krampi?) beat the children to whom they run up to at random. Think less ‘walking in a winter wonderland’ and rather ‘attempting survival in any horror film you’ve ever had the guts to watch’. That pretty sums up Krampus and his festive role in western Austria.

You can watch a summary of this year’s event in the Tyrolean ski resort town of Sölden for the least Christmassy thing you have ever seen, and to prove that I’m not making it all up:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VSdrH3B6JE&w=560&h=315]

There is, of course, much more to Christmas in the Austrian Alps than Krampus. On 6 December, Sankt Nikolaus visits the houses of families with children, giving them small gifts that are usually heavy on the chocolates. The Immaculate Conception is also marked throughout Catholic Austria and Italy with the day off on the 8th.

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Christmas markets, the staple of the Germanic advent, spring up in towns from Innsbruck to Vienna. They are filled with handmade and local products, be it knitted scarves or fruity jams, mulled wine, Bratwursts or Kaisershmarrn (sugared pancakes with raisins). The imitations of such markets in the UK are a positive sign of a lovely cultural event catching on, but they often seem fake and lack the spirit of their European counterparts, despite many having come directly from there. Perhaps this is because of the lesser importance Brits place on the market as a place where friends and family spend time together, defying the cold. Indeed, in the UK, the market itself takes on a far greater role, making more necessary the fanfare of the likes of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.

During my year abroad, it’s been an incredible experience to witness the traditions integral to the Austrian Christmas calendar. Indeed, I was surprised to hear that in the more Catholic areas of Austria and southern Germany it is baby Jesus himself, rather than Father Christmas, who is believed to deliver the presents. Given that in the UK we have a hard enough time trying to convince children that a fully-functioning adult, equipped with a sleigh and elves, does the job, I very much pity Austrian parents. However, I suppose that this aspect of winter festivities, as with Krampus’ hard-to-forget role in the run-up, says a great deal about the surreal aspects of Christmas here, and the significant mix of pagan traditions with the country’s relatively more recent Christianity.