Today, November 30, is the first Advent Sunday, which marks the beginning of Christmas season in Austria. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival. There are four Advent Sundays until Christmas Eve, and these special days are symbolized by the four candles on the Advent wreath. On the first Sunday, one candle is lit; on the second Sunday, the first and a second candle are lit, and so on. Usually, the family sits together and sings Christmas carols and eats Christmas cookies. The wreath is usually made out of evergreen branches and does have real candles, and yes, in contrast to the attitudes in the U.S. Austrians are not freaked out that the wreath will go up in flames even though it will be dry after four weeks of use (side note: we do watch the open flame). The wreath is either placed on a table or hung from the ceiling. Even stores and banks will have Advent wreaths and large Advent wreaths are often hung from the ceiling in churches or streetlights at town squares.
As a kid, Advent was a great way to countdown Christmas, to already enjoy caroling, and to eat the special cookies such as Vanillekipferl and Linzeraugen. For recipes in English, check this website: http://www.austria.info/us/food-and-wine-in-austria/christmas-cookies-1203652.html
I do keep up with the tradition but I have given up on finding a fresh wreath and trying to set the candles in it; Austrian shops offer special metal spikes that safely secure candles to the wreath, but it always seems too much hassle for me here. So I bought a wreath out of metal and I just place candles on it each year – no need to find a fresh wreath or fight with the candles. Most visitors to my house throughout December do find it odd though that we light only one or two candles or that some of the candles are so much shorter from use than the other ones. Advent wreaths are definitely not that popular in California.