Stockings are another Christmas tradition that I am not used to from Austria. The gifts from Santa supposedly arrive overnight and will be in the stockings while gifts given by people have actually been under the tree potentially for weeks by the time Christmas morning arrives. Even though it sounds like there would be more gifts overall in comparison to the Austrian way where all gifts are brought by the Christkind and appear under the tree, I have never really adopted the stocking idea/tradition. But it is cute to see in other homes all the stockings hanging over the fireplace for weeks before Christmas and ready to be filled by Santa. And every family member gets his/her own stocking:
I hope you and your loved ones have happy holidays, a very merry Christmas (if you celebrate it), and of course do not forget to stop for reindeer!
PS: It is amazing how much effort some people put into decorating for the holidays – these reindeer are at least 12 ft. tall if not taller. I am wondering where the owners store them and how they put the reindeer together. I loved the look and the fitting “edited” street sign though.
Santa is not the only difference (see previous post) between Austria and the U.S. when it comes to traditions surrounding Christmas. Another major difference is the tree. While in the U.S. most families set up and decorate the tree as early as the first day after Thanksgiving, the tree is not decorated and revealed until December 24 in Austria. Of course there is also the difference between electric lights and real candle light and sparklers. The candles and sparklers are also the reason for two additional large differences. The first difference is the smell associated with unwrapping Christmas gifts: I associate Christmas and gifts with the smell of extinguished candles and the slight smoke of spent sparklers.
The second difference is the ideal shape and decorations of the tree. Since candles need plenty of empty space so they do not ignite the decorations and branches above the flame, branches are pretty far apart and decorations need to be kept to a minimum right around the candles. My husband, thus, has always compared Austrian trees (lovingly) to Charlie Brown’s sad tree.
However, traditions and tastes are hard to shake, so an American tree can be very beautiful, amazingly elaborate, and a great decorating item for December and the pre-Christmas time, but it does not seem like a “real” Christmas tree to me. The great advantage of that attitude is that my (for Americans) peculiar taste in trees means I usually get my tree with large discounts since no one else seems to be on the hunt for a tree with few branches, plenty of space between the branches, and still in the lot just a few days before Christmas. Maybe I should have two trees: the more elaborate, dazzling American version and the minimalistic Austrian tree.
PS: I do NOT recommend putting candles and sparklers on American trees. Also, we usually had fire extinguisher and/or a bucket of water right next to tree, so we were prepared.
One of the advantages of living in California is the easy access to beaches and warm(ish) weather even over Christmas. Sure, beach weather is better/warmer in Southern California (and admittedly many other parts of the U.S.), but I love the beaches in Northern California. As plenty of songs indicate, Christmas or winter holidays are associated with snow and many do not get that true holiday feeling unless there is snow on the ground. This also applied to me when I was still living in Austria, but I got over that pretty quickly.
Holidays without snow are just perfect for me, especially when spent on the beach. I was lucky enough to spend this year’s holidays at my favorite Northern Californian beach, Stinson Beach. It is a three-and-a-half-mile sandy beach about forty minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The current population according to the town’s welcome sign is 486. Highway 1 to Stinson Beach offers stunning vistas of the Pacific, and the road past Muir Woods and below Mt. Tamaplais leads through coastal redwood forests. On a clear day, the views on the trip to the beach as well as on the beach are breathtaking and show California from one of its best sides. California, and especially Stinson Beach, has convinced me that winter holidays are better with a beach.
The Grinch, a fictional character created by Dr. Seuss, is known by most in the U.S. but an exotic import strongly associated with American culture for Austrians. Most know of him only through the movie or TV show and not the book. In general, Dr. Seuss’s work is not as popular as it is in the U.S. For example, Amazon.de showed the German version of the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas on rank 284,780 in books sold and that during Holiday season when the book can be expected to be more popular than throughout the rest of the year. Amazon.com, however, listed it under rank 161 for all books and number 1 for children’s books on the same day I checked the German site. The Grinch, by the way, keeps his name in the German translation although the spelling is awkward. I do not understand the popularity of Dr. Seuss’s work, but I guess one had to grow up with his books and be introduced to them as a child to really “get” or like the books.
I knew about the Grinch before I moved to the U.S. and would think of a green character in a Santa suit when I heard name, but I never knew the details of the story. I assumed he stole or tried to steal Christmas based on the title; based on the illustrations of the book cover in stores and the poster for the movie with Jim Carrey, I also assumed that the Grinch was anti-Christmas and in general not in the best mood and was dressed just like Santa. But when I see green combined with a Santa suit, I do react the predictable way and associate the colors with the Grinch. Thus, I was fascinated by the idea of creating a Grinch out of fruit for potlucks and other meals this season, and it was usually recognized as a portrayal of the Grinch by those who ate them.
For Austrians, Santa is an import that has become well-known through Hollywood movies, American T.V. shows, and Christmas songs in English. We understand his job and his importance to American kids, but traditionally we do not believe in him or ask him for presents; he is obviously not real, so what would be the point. Instead, we have Christkind, who is so different from Santa.
First, Christkind is female and is an angel while Santa is male and rather human looking. Since Christkind is an angel, she has wings and thus flies from household to household and does not use reindeers or a flying sleigh as Santa does. Because Christkind means Christ child, she is also rather slim and definitely not “fluffy” like Santa. She is dressed usually in a white or silver or gold dress and wears a crown or halo. She does bring gifts but does not come through the chimney, and she also helps decorate the Christmas tree (see yesterday’s post). Even though it is important for Austrian children to be nice to receive the gifts they wished for, Christkind does not bring coal; that is associated with St. Nikolaus and December 6. The history of Christkind is supposedly connected with Martin Luther, the church reformer; he wanted to shift the focus from the saint celebrated on December 6 with gifts to the birth of Christ; since most had a hard time associating Christ with gifts, the gift-giver morphed into a child-like angel. Children do send a letter with their wishes to the Christkind, but in Austria, the Christkind has its own address; letters are sent to the town Christkindl, which is a real town. In Bavaria, children send their letters to Himmelstadt, “Heaven Town.”
However, Santa Claus is becoming more and more well-known through the media and advertisements, and this upsets quite a few. So there is actually a kind of fight going on between Christkind and Santa it seems, and the Christkind has plenty of supporters on the web. There is for example, a site named “Santa-Claus-Free Zone.” I grew up with Christkind, but since I am now living in the U.S., our household has adopted both figures: Christkind brings the big gifts under the tree in the evening of December 24 and also decorates the tree, and Santa stuffs the stockings in the early morning of December 25. No fighting for dominance here.
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.
No Christmas market or fair is complete without roasted almonds. In German, they are called gebrannte Mandeln (“burnt almonds”) or Wiener Mandeln (“Viennese Almonds”). The sugar-coated nuts are absolutely addictive and have always been one of my favorite snacks at fairs and Octoberfest. The sweet treat is so much part of the German/Austrian culture that specialty shops also sell them at German cultural events in the States – but they are expensive, and the problem is that I am always tempted to eat my weight in roasted almonds. So I was excited to learn that these nuts can also be made at home without any special equipment – it takes a lot of stirring, but the whole house smells of sugar and cinnamon for days afterwards, so it pays off. So no more waiting for special events with vendors to enjoy the roasted almonds!
Here is the recipe that has worked well for me.
- 350 gram or 1.8 cups of sugar
- 2 packages of vanilla sugar
- 100 ml or 0.6 cup of water
- 400 gram or nearly a pound of raw whole almonds
- cinnamon to taste (I usually use a lot, so about 2 table spoons)
On medium heat bring the cinnamon, sugar, vanilla sugar, and water to a boil in a large pan [I use a Wok since that is the only large non-stick pan I have]. Add the almonds and stir until the sugar is dry again. This will take a while – 15 minutes or more. Continue stirring until the sugar starts to slightly melt again and the almonds start to shine [this will take another 5 minutes or so]. Empty the almonds onto a backing sheet, divide them if stuck together, and let them cool. Keep in an airtight container. I have no idea how long the almonds will stay fresh since they usually are eaten in a few days in my house.
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.