Austria has several unique Christmas customs, some imported from Protestant Germany and others evolving from Catholic communities.
In Austria, Saint Nicholas, or Santaklausen, visits children on December 4th accompanied by the devil. The pair asks the children if they have been bad or good during the year. If a child confesses to misbehaving, the devil, referred to as Knect Ruprecht, tries to strike him with a stick. However, Santaklausen sends the child running before any harm befalls him or her. When they return on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th, they reward good children with mittens or other useful gifts, as well as candy, fruits and nuts.
Christmas Eve in Austria
Christmas Eve is a family affair centered around both a Christmas tree, which is decorated by parents, and a nativity scene. Some nativity scenes feature as many as 100 pieces and are treasured family heirlooms. On Christmas Eve the Christkindle brings gifts to the children, placing them under the Christmas tree. In some parts of Austria Saint Nicholas brings gifts for the boys and Saint Lucia (more commonly associated with Swedish Christmas traditions) brings the gifts for the girls. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner in Austria is often baked carp.
Most Austrian churches hold a Midnight Mass and in olden times, peasants would come down from their mountain homes in a torch lit procession. In the Tyrol region of Austria Children would set out a pan of milk for the Christ Child and his mother. A common Christmas tradition in Austria is Turmblasen, when brass instruments are played at in a church steeple or other tower, so the music can carry to all the people of the village. Another common holiday custom in Austria is “Showing the Christ Child,” where a manger is carried from house to house by people singing Christmas Carols.
December 25th and 26th (Saint Stephen’s Day) are both legal holidays in Austria. It is a time for visiting with family and friends.
Silent Night! Holy Night! (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!)
One of the most famous Christmas carols of all time came from Austria. Silent Night was first sung in the tiny hamlet of Obernhorf in 1818. According to legend, the church organ was broken, with no hope of repair before the Christmas Eve Mass. The local priest, Josef Mohr asked his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose a tune for a short song he had written. Gruber adapted the tune for a guitar, and viola! Silent Night was born.
In 1854 the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV heard Silent Night sung at the Imperial Church in Berlin. He immediately declared that it should be the first Christmas carol sung at all Christmas concerts in Prussia.