In our Austro-American household, the exact date for Christmas is always a topic for a discussion/argument. For Austrians, Christmas is definitely on December 24 – that is the day we exchange gifts in the early evening and then end the day with midnight mass. For many Americans, Christmas is not until December 25 and the highlight of the day is in the morning, which just seems odd to me. I have never gotten used to that tradition – who wants to wake up early and open gifts on an open stomach?! And who wants to take pictures of everyone wearing pajamas when unwrapping gifts?!! At least, I now understand why shops sell pajamas with Christmas patterns here. For me, Christmas is clearly an evening celebration and that means one gets dressed up – think suit and tie or dress, and try avoiding jeans. The gift exchange is followed by a large sit-down dinner and not breakfast or lunch.
Another big difference is the tree. While most Americans put up the tree shortly after Thanksgiving and take it down a few days after December 25, the Austrian Christmas tree is not even brought into the house until December 24. The tree has been kept secret from the kids and the tree is set up without the kids since the tree is actually decorated by the Christkind, the Austrian version of Santa Claus. After lunch on December 24, we kids were told to stay out of the living room and all doors to the room were locked and the curtains drawn since Christkind needed its privacy. We would try to distract ourselves from the excitement by watching TV, usually Czech fairy tale films, dubbed in German. From time to time, we could not resist and snuck up to the locked doors to listen for any noise behind them or to look through the keyhole to catch a glance of Christkind decorating the tree. It did not seem weird to us that our parents were in the locked room as well since they told us that they would be helping Christkind. After a couple of hours, my mom came out to tell us to get dressed for the evening since Christkind was nearly done decorating. Dressed in our Christmas outfits, we waited to hear the bell ring; it indicated that the Christkind had left and we were ready to celebrate.
Through the half-closed door we could see the glistening tree and hear the crackling of sparklers on the tree. Yes, even though the tree was real, it was decorated with lit candles and sparklers. We gathered around the tree and would oooh and aaah before we started singing Christmas carols. “Silent Night, Holy Night” was always the last one we sang, and then we blew out the candles. The smell I most associate with Christmas is the smell of sparklers going off in an enclosed room and the smoke from the extinguished candles on the tree. I know for most Americans this sounds just like an incredibly dangerous fire hazard, but we did not take the open flame lightly. We always had one or two buckets filled with water in the same room as the tree just in case it did catch on fire or the sparklers singed the carpet; we also bought a tree that was still fresh and not cut too long ago and it was also in a stand with water to keep it fresh like cut flowers in a vase. And because the candles were rather big to last a while, the preferred tree is also quite different from the American Christmas tree; the Austrian tree needs to have plenty of space between branches, so the candles do not singe the branch or decoration above the flame while American trees are much fuller and are not supposed to have clear “levels” of branches.
The idea of candles on a Christmas tree really seems to freak out Americans; I chuckled when I saw the following site about decorating Christmas tress that showed real candles on the tree but then also stated “You definitely don’t want to light them, but place candles on your tree for a cozy, glowy effect.” I am not sure what the point of the candles is if we are not allowed to light them and how the “glowy effect” is created without flames, but this does highlight the American attitude towards Christmas candles for me. See the site here: http://www.popsugar.com/home/Unique-Christmas-Tree-36112702#photo-36113070
Christmas Eve was always the first time we would see the tree; in the morning, we had still been playing in the living room and in the evening the room had turned into the magnificent display of glitter and fire. I still do not put my tree up before the afternoon of December 24 even though the neighbors have displayed their trees with electronic lights for weeks in the bay windows of their houses. Our tree also stays up until January 6 as it is tradition in Austria while the neighbors have already put their trees to the curb on December 26 or a few days later.