Ah fuck, Christmas! And I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping!
After I did the Halloween post back in October I thought, hey, that was kind of fun, being all high and mighty and lecturing people. So, since I couldn’t do an episode of how-we-do-things about Thanksgiving in Austria, I decided to do one on Christmas. Why? Because Thanksgiving doesn’t exist here. Stuffing our faces is part of our lifestyle and doesn’t need a holiday of its own. Also, we didn’t have pilgrims, nor did we have native inhabitants to kill. We are our natives, ever since the Indo-Europeans made their way to Europe a good 3000 years ago. Ergo, no reason to celebrate.
So Thanksgiving doesn’t make much sense. We do small local harvest feasts at the end of summer, though. Fresh must and cider, now that’s something to be thankful for.
I think everyone, all over the world, is very familiar with stereotypical American Christmas. I mean, we’ve all seen so many movies about it, right? So why not think about how we, all us non-Americans, celebrate our christianised solstice? So this is what this segment is for. Keep in mind that this is a secular and very limited perspective, locally speaking, I’m only talking about Vienna here.
Okay, so Christmas, yeah, of course we have Christmas. Even though about half of people under forty identify as atheists, and every second child in 2013 was born out of wedlock, we’re not some sort of godless heathens (as far as you know, and you can’t prove a thing!). Also, food. FOOD! Nothing better than cheating on your diet with “But it’s Christmas time!” and have that extra gingerbread, that extra cookie, that extra piece of roast, that extra ANYTHING!
I mean, I assume you already know this, but on the off-chance that you don’t: Christmas has been celebrated way before Jesus and way before it was called Christmas. The Christians moved their festival to the day of the winter solstice, which has been celebrated since humans in this area discovered, hey, the days are getting longer again. Knowledge like this, the solstices, the equinoxes, have been vital for our survival in the past and should rightly be celebrated because they are useful, especially in an agricultural context. The gods came later. Nothing wrong with keeping them about, but just remember, they’re not the reason for the season. The season is the reason for the season.
The most interesting part about Austrian Christmas traditions is perhaps that the action happens before and after the Christmas date. On Christmas itself, you just stuff your face, maybe go to church if you have to. But mainly, you eat, exchange presents, pretend to be delighted, try not to pick a quarrel that results in a mighty family feud again, and fall into a food coma as soon as you’re home.
Now first things first, the date. We usually celebrate on the 24th of December. Can be midday, can be afternoon, can be evening, that depends on every family’s tradition. Like, me and mine, we usually get together about late afternoon, because my mother said, and I quote “I’ll be damned if I get up at 6 am to start cooking!” (She tried this a couple times when I was a kid and the family was still well enough to visit, and she was not happy.) Families gather together to eat and exchange presents and have coffee and sweets and maybe engage in group food coma. There’s family drama and debates from god-knows-when and tears and whiny children and drunk grannies telling their first dirty jokes in years. Hey, some people (especially in rural communities) even go to church for midnight mass! All in all, pretty usual stuff.
After food there’s usually the traditional exchange of
peace gifts presents which may or may not involve sending the little children of the house off into a different room while the parents get their Xboxes and iPhones (or whatever it is kids get these days) out of their careful hiding places and arrange them around the tree, then ring a small bell to pretend the Christchild has made his delivery and shove the kids back into the room. Magic! Aren’t you just so surprised, our Franzl?
Someone might even choose to torture the entire family with Christmas music. Christmas music falls into two variations: the traditional and the imported British and/or American stuff. I still can’t decide which is worse. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, Alle Jahre Wieder, Es Ist ein Ros Entsprungen, Leise Rieselt der Schnee, O Tannenbaum, Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, or, the very worst, Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa, all those songs from the early 1800s, when everyone was suddenly into family values, family religion, and family Christmas. If anyone, and grandmothers are infamous for this, insists on hearing “something nice for once” or, worse, something “besinnlich”, you know you lost, because the above mentioned are what you will hear until your eyes pop and your ears bleed. Youtube at your own risk. I’m going to hear this all month.
On the other hand we have your foreign classics like Rudolph, Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland (uuuuugh), Let It Snow, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Santa Baby, and the worst Christmas song in the history of ever, Baby It’s Cold Outside (seriously? If someone asks “Hey, what’s in this drink?” how is that not a rapey red flag?! Yeah, nothing says peace on earth like the prelude to sexual assault.) for the more open-minded cosmopolitan and, most importantly, younger crowd. And also every store everywhere ever, and I’m about ready to shove an oboe up my auditory canal. No one ever plays the funny songs like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.
And since eating is so important on Christmas Eve, what do we eat? Again, depends on the family tradition. Some have goose (still very popular, but hellish to make I hear, takes forever), some have roast pork, some have roast beef, some have fish, some have duck, some have chicken, with a range of sides like various aggregate forms of potatoes (cooked, mashed, fried, french fries, oven grilled, pan grilled, do you even know how much you can do with potatoes?), green beans, salad, cooked vegetables, gravy, and so on. Some have something different every year. Some say, fuck it, and book a table at a restaurant and no shame, a lot of people do that. Like, book a table a week or a month in advance. Then there’s the cookies. Oh, the cookies. Non-German-speaking world, do you even have Vanillekipferl? Linzer Augen? Zimtsterne? Spekulatius? Kokosmakronen? I dare you to google pictures!
Okay, before you drool all over the keyboard, let’s consider the word itself. Christmas consists of mas, meaning “feast” (see also mass and German Messe), and Christ, so the feast of Christ. Weihnachten, the German word, comes from ze wihen nahten, a Middle High German phrase first found in a 12th century sermon that basically means “at the blessed/hallow night”. It is not a plural form, a question I sometimes get from people who are in the process of learning German. (German has so many damned different plural forms, it’s okay if you get them confused sometimes.) Anyway, only the part about “blessed night” survived, and tada, a new word.
Let’s now consider the word besinnlich. Old fashioned cards and old people like to wish you “besinnliche Weihnachten”. This is probably one of the most German words EVER. A dictionary will tell you it means reflective, contemplative, or tranquil, but it’s all of those and more. It draws you right back to the time when Germany could rightfully claim to be the country of poets and thinkers (“Land der Dichter und Denker”, notice the alliteration and compare Ireland’s “land of saints and scholars”. It’s aaaall marketing.), back when Kleist and Heine were big shots of the German literature scene, the time of the Bildungsbürgertum, the intellectual and economic upper bourgeoisie, in the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s like this state of mind you should reach around Christmas, this kind of ur-Christian feeling of being a) thankful, b) believing, c) reflecting about your life and the universe and everything, possibly in context with your flavour of Christianity. It’s the kind of feeling that you should experience listening to Silent Night, Holy Night, that insufferable song I’m going to hear until New Year’s that doesn’t make me feel besinnlich but more like homicidal. So it’s a pretty rare feeling, I’d say. It’s not something you’ll readily feel while hunting through the malls and shopping streets, checking off many an item on an ever-growing list. Then again of course it developed before malls and shopping streets. Nothing besinnlich about shopping unless you’re a real fashion victim.
Do we have Christmas trees? Well, duh, where do you think this tradition comes from? Dragging evergreen plants into your home is about as Germanic as you can get without drinking ale out of your enemy’s skull (for some reason that’s frowned upon these days). It used to be for magic purposes (however the hell that was supposed to work) to bring spring back, or, on a more psychological level, as a green beacon of hope to make people endure the cold and patiently wait for the next spring without too much of a nervous breakdown. Now we just hang balls and garlands on them. Or X-wings, depends on the people and their personal fandom. Most people still buy a new genuine tree every year, because plastic may be cheaper and less hassle and less needles but it is just. Not. The. Same. Sorry, we’re a bit too traditional for that. Needles are a bother, yes, but on the other hand, a real tree feels better and smells better. And, well… do you know how many pines and firs and other coniferous trees grow in this country?
But who puts presents under those wonderfully smelling trees? We don’t have Santa Claus. AT best we have the Weihnachtsmann, but he’s only been moving in for the past 30 years or so (thanks, America). We get our presents from the Christkind (Christ-child), which is basically baby Jesus, not only come back from the dead but also suddenly a lot smaller. It’s like Jesus is a Time Lord and he regenerated shortly before Christmas and something went wrong and he didn’t take an adult form and that’s how the legend was born. Okay, it’s baby Jesus merged with the holy spirit merged with an angel like thing with blond hair and wings. Blame Martin Luther and the Protestants who didn’t want to continue the Nikolaus tradition because worshipping saints is too close to polytheism but angel-like things from heaven that are inspired by local nativity plays are a-okay.
The Christkind doesn’t crawl through the chimney. First of all because no one has fireplaces anymore, and second because, well, it (he? No, I think it’s an ‘it’.) can just appear if he wants. It doesn’t need any reindeer pulled sleighs either. It’s also shy as hell, so if you try to sneak around the house and spot it, it won’t come and bring you presents!
Now, if you’re a kid in Austria and you grow up with the tradition of the Christkind AND somehow got an impression of the Santa Clause tradition, you might have a period of confusion before putting two and two together and surmise that either a) they work together, or b) DOUBLE PRESENTS! Let’s just say parents of small children around here have some ‘splaining to do this time of year. (If kids these days even still believe in anything, because I’ve overheard 6-year-olds making fun of their peers for believing in such figures as the Christkind. Like, everyone knows it’s your parents, dude, we’re all just playing along to spare their feelings. Then again, if there’s presents involved, kids can be very believing all of a sudden. Or at least pretend to be. Sneaky little secular bastards.)
Also, if you’re an Austrian child and you know that the Christ-child is more or less baby Jesus, who is male, but on every Christmas market you see a post-pubescent woman in a blond wig parading around as the Christchild, you’re going to have a long period of confusion, and your parents will haven even more desperate ‘splaining to do. (“But if the Christkind is Jesus, why is it a lady?” – “Because the Christkind is a baby, after all.” – “But she doesn’t look like a baby! Babies are very small and can’t walk!” Ah, children. They know when things don’t add up.)
Then there’s the whole business with St. Nicolas (who we call Nikolaus or Nikolo), an old man in a bishop’s robe and a giant beard, and Krampus, a devilish lookin’ fella with horns and hooves. (In the Netherlands, he’s called Swarte Piet, “black Peter”, and apparently there was some postcolonial controversy about that recently.)
No reindeer here either. Both are part of our pre-Christmas traditions. The Krampus’ feast day is on Dec 5 and Nikolaus’ on Dec 6. And if you’re not from Central Europe you’ve probably never heard from them. Which is a pity, because Nikolaus is one of the bases for Santa Claus, as is obvious from the name alone. It’s not a state holiday here, though, and it’s more important for example in Finland and Spain. There are various theories about the origin of Nikolaus and all make a certain amount of sense, but which one is accepted usually depends on where in Europe you are. One of the established and long-going theories is that Nikolaus himself is based on Odin (also known as Wotan in the south), himself a bearded old dude, but during the Christianisation he merged with a bishop (hence the name) to include him into the new religion. (It was vital to make this tradition extra-Christian because early Christians in German-speaking regions were so afraid of the old gods, we don’t even have Odin’s name in our names for the days of the week. English has Wednesday, “Wotan’s day”, German has Mittwoch, “middle of the week”.) Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, who apparently gave three young women gold for their dowries and did similar things that made him fit for the role of… bringing small sticky children chocolate to make them even more sticky. (Used to be oranges and nuts, but you know how kids are these days.)
What do we do on Nikolaus day? Well, before Christmas gift giving became a big thing in the 1800s, Nikolaus was the traditional gift day for the kids. Nowadays they get chocolates in various forms, sometimes still traditionally to be found in their shoes in the morning, and usually Nikolaus- or Krampus-shaped because gimmicks sell. All through the schools and day care facilities children are forced to sing cheerful songs about the joyous reason for the day (Kling, Glöckchen, Klingelingeling, fuuuhuuuuck youuu….). People dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus run around desperately trying to impress our increasingly unimpressed children. Usually they visit the local kindergartens to give out candy. Sometimes, in the evening, parents blackmail an uncle (or Mom just forces Dad) into dressing up and giving out chocolate to the children of the family, who usually already know who’s trying to hide under the not-at-all-convincing beard, but hey, free chocolate. And if you can scare your little siblings/cousins by telling them how they are going to be punished, hey, more power to you, kid.
Us grown-ups sometimes participate in the festivities ourselves, to varying degrees: chocolate, sexy chocolate, other sexy things for when the kids are long asleep (because there’s nothing sexier than being bad and we’ve all been naughty, oh, very naughty indeed, “oh, Krampus, are you gonna spank me?”. Don’t. Ask.). Some just stuff a jute sack with chocolate, peanuts and marzipan and try to stuff it into their boyfriend’s winter boots (hint: boots can never be big enough, it seems).
There are many Germanic traditions surrounding the time between the winter solstice and the early days after New Year’s Eve. You may have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas? That’s the twelve days between Dec 25 and Jan 6 now. (Feast Day of the Three Wise Men, very big in Spain as well.) For ancient Germans, this period was called “Rauhnächte”, and it was a baaad time to venture outside, because Odin and the dead (that’d make a great band name) went a-hunting, what was called the Wild Hunt.
What Odin also supposedly did, either during the Rauhnächte or on St Nicolas’ feast day, depends if we’re talking before or after the missionaries made their move, was to reward good people by bringing them presents of food, and punishing bad people. People were also supposed to put carrots in their boots and put them outside for Odin’s eight-legged horse (which Loki gave birth to – Germanic mythology, ladies and gentlemen!) to have a snack, and Odin would then deposit gifts where the carrots had been. Sounds familiar yet?
The Krampus, known as Knecht Ruprecht (“servant Ruprecht”) mainly in the protestant regions of Germany, especially in the north, on the other hand, is of a more obscure origin. He’s on the punishing side of things, rattling chains and brandishing a rod, or at least he was before people started to be all “Won’t somebody think of the children!” Now there’s no more spankings and you can buy chocolate effigies of him as well. (Funnily enough, when people dressed as Nikolaus and Krampus come to visit kids in kindergarten, as is practised, kids are usually more scared of Nikolaus.) Krampus, in a Christian context, is basically Beelzebub, a stand-in for the devil, a lesser demon who can punish children on Nikolaus’ command. (Remember, kids, devils need heavenly permission to whip you stupid. Isn’t that a comforting thought?)
In a pre-Christian context, Krampus has a lot of roots. The parallel to the devil is more than obvious, but that came later, with the Christianisation of the continent. He is associated with the Wild Hunt, and his outer appearance resembles the Perchten tradition, which we’ll come to later. The name Krampus comes from a Middle High German word meaning “claw”. He carries either a sack or a wooden tub to carry off bad children. He usually is clad in fur, has a tail and has cloven hooves for feet, again, see devil depictions, it’s not far off. During the Early Modern period until about the 17th century it was actually forbidden under penalty of death to dress up as Krampus, because a good Christian could of course not dress up as a demon or diabolic anything. Nevertheless, some people just carried on with the tradition like they just didn’t care and so it survived and was re-established somewhere around the Enlightenment period. When the Perchtenläufe came back in full force and quickly gained popularity again all over the Alpine region (southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, you name it) at the beginning of the 19th century, a time marked by a general return to traditional German values and customs, a want for some good ol’ Brauchtum, the Krampus’ appearance began to resemble theirs.
Perchten are a very Alpine thing. Just look at this:
Google it if you like. Google pictures. Things like this could only ever be conceived in the Alps, because if you get right down to it the Alps are fucking scary as hell. Bitter cold, biting snow, sun sets too early, harsh winds, echoes everywhere, one false step and you fall down a cliff, just imagine how it must have been for people living there 1000 years ago or even longer.
Perchten are not just some weird hairy things. In a real Perchtenlauf they have roles, and those roles and their costumes vary sometimes greatly from region to region. In such processions you might also find people donning what looks like gigantic hats made of fruit, flowers, or mirrors (also known as Schönperchten); other people with wooden tubs strapped to their backs sweeping the streets; others still with giant feather headpieces; some decorated with pine cones; people dressed as exaggerated representations of old women or witches; generally you can say that the hairy horned Schiachperchten symbolise evil spirits and the Schönperchten, who in the procession follow after the Schiachperchten, symbolise the good spirits of fertility and spring. Pretty simple concept, really. It’s all traditional, but no one is really sure anymore how or why it was started.
Few things ignite so much debate as the custom of Perchtenlauf, giant processions through the village and/or adjoining fields by dozens of pretty fellas as those you see above, all during the twelve nights. Some communities have a fixed date for this, and apparently it varies by region. We don’t do it in Vienna, it being more of a rural west part of the country thing, so it’s pretty alien to me, too, but it seems to be slowly gaining interest. I’ve seen Perchten on the subway, probably on their way to perform a show for us town folks, and it’s kinda surreal. (And not a single kid screamed! Kids are weird.)
There are a lot of theories about the name. The name itself has been used since the Middle Ages. The most popular one sees the root in an Old High German word, berchttac, the old name for the holiday of Epiphany. It’s definitely the root for bercht, a Middle High German word meaning bright. If those words have anything at all to do with the custom, however, is up to debate.But then again, just because you didn’t call it Perchten back then doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
There is also a lot of discussion about a possible pre-Christian origin, because the first written statements about Perchtenläufe date from the 16th century. Again, maybe people just didn’t write much about those weird mountain folks living in regions you hardly ever wandered through if you could avoid it. There are some ancient Roman reports from the 5th century about parades of masked people running about Alpine towns around the time of the solstice, expelling winter and evil spirits with noise and bells, stomping all over the fields to break the ice on the ground, and invite the good, nice and most importantly fertile spring spirits back. Well, I mean. Look at those masks. Let’s just say good Christians aren’t usually that creative.
Another big point is the supposed worship of Frau Perchta. There is a theory that a goddess of that name or a similar one was once one of the main deities in the region. There’s not much evidence for that, though (well, duh, not like people did write a lot until a few hundred years ago), so this theory not taken very seriously. Granted, the Perchtenlauf role of Frau Perchta/Witch exists. There definitely is a mythological figure know to the Alpine and some Slavic regions of that name, though in how far there was any worship involved ad any time is unknown. She might be the result of centuries worth of cultural contact and fusion between Celtic, Germanic and Slavic tribes. Then again, there are similar figures of different names (Frau Holle (the fairy tale of the same name is based on her) in the northern part of Germany, Frau Fricke/Gode towards the Netherlands) in German-speaking regions, so it might be a case of an archetype. Maybe this figure is old enough to have travelled with the Indo-Europeans.
According to mythology, Perchta is a witch-like figure who punishes bad housekeeping and bad farming practices, punishments ranging from nightmares to plain ol’ bloody death. Like… she hacks people to pieces. Or disembowels them. I told you the Alps were scary. On the other hand, she rewards diligence, hard work, and helpfulness, so if ever an old woman in the Alps asks for your help you better go and do what she asks, it might be a test. During the Rauhnächte she flies through the houses to check that everything is clean and orderly (might explain why we do Big House Cleaning Action shortly before Christmas, maybe it’s not just for the visiting relatives) and WOE BETIDE YOU IF IT’S NOT! Excuse me while I go find my swiffer kit.
Maybe we should return to less violent matters? During the Twelve Days of Christmas, but especially on Jan 6, you might also find what we call “Sternsinger”, people, mostly children though, dressing up as the Three Wise Men (or as we call them, “die Heiligen Drei Könige”, the Three Holy Kings, again, they’re really big in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries), going door to door to sing and collect for charity. This is a relatively old custom, dating back to the 16th century. This explains a lot. Like, why sometimes one of the kids is in blackface. Well, Caspar has been represented as a black man since the 13th century, that’s not our fault! And certainly no one thought anything about it in the 16th century! So if you’re a tourist, maybe hailing from the Americas, be assured no one means to offend, just trying to be historically and religiously accurate. And because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t like change. “But why can’t you just get an honest-to-God black kid to play Caspar?” Because there are not that many black kids here, sorry. And isn’t it kinda racist to ask the black kids to play the black character just because they happen to be black? What? I’m sure I already put my foot in my mouth so I might as well chew on it. There are not that many black people in Austria in general, seeing as we never had oversea imperialism or slavery (and, for the sake of completeness, minstrel shows or what you call it, I just learned about them this year). Sorry? We have a really good black soccer player, though, we get points for that, right?
What you might have noticed if you’ve ever been to Vienna is that some houses and apartments will have a date written in chalk above the door. This is basically a “we were here” graffiti of the Sternsinger.
When you think about it, Christmas is really all about the kids while the adults rush through work, Christmas shopping, and a million item to-do list. There is so much stress involved about:
- the food: One doesn’t eat that, the other doesn’t like this, Grandma wants her traditional meal that she used to cook before she was to weak to hold a pan, Aunt A is allergic to X thing, while Cousin B is experimenting with vegetarianism, etc.
- the grocery shopping: What with all the stores being closed from Dec 24th noon to Dec 27 7:30, because holidays, which sucks really bad this year because the 26th falls on a Friday, probably making Saturday a bridge day, and before you say, oh, just do your shopping on Sunday… nothing is ever open on a Sunday here.
- the family: Let us feel pity for the big families where it’s always guaranteed to be two people who cannot be in the same room together without killing each other. Then the feeling that you, as the host, have to please fucking everybody adds a dozen extra layers of stress. But even in small families, where everyone hates everyone else, you’ll have a million words to swallow just to keep the peace.
- the presents: No one has any damned money anymore, and everyone has everything they could possibly need already. So what do you get them? Then there’s the kids who can never have enough of the new expensive anything and somehow despite very careful explanation still believe that money grows on trees; the teenager who doesn’t know what they want aside from a different life, less embarrassing parents, the new iphone, and a hundred items of designer clothing; and the older person (aunt, uncle, grandparent, anyone) who just complains about everything.
- the gathering: Who will host? Who will come? What will be eaten? When will be the gift exchange? At least two people don’t know if they can make it, then show up just as the food is on the table, kids everywhere, teenagers who would rather be in their rooms masturbating, someone started talking about politics, throw alcohol into the mix and merry nervous breakdown.
- the time: There is never enough damned time. Consider all those things: Deciding on the host, deciding on the food, sending out invitations, calling everyone three times to make sure everyone’s on the same page, planning the grocery shopping for the feast and the following holidays, preparing the food, buying a tree, decorating said tree, buying presents, wrapping presents, maybe even decorating the house, baking cookies, possibly with whiny children, cleaning the house, washing and ironing your and possibly your immediate family’s nice clothes, because Grandma always tuts if you show up in sweatpants… all this while you still have to work, pay your bills, do your household stuff, maybe take care of children, maybe go to school, maybe take care of sick or old relatives, maybe all of those…
- And then after the holidays are over you sit yourself down and start telling yourself how you will do it all differently next year, how you will start preparing earlier, how you will not be influenced by the judgy stares of your in-laws or own family members next year. Guess how well that works out?
Sometimes I wonder why we still do it every year. If you objectively look at it, Christmas sounds like utter madness. First people worship the sun, now they’re having heart attacks over their child’s presents and their in-laws’ opinions. Insanity! Lunacy! What fit of frenzy made us think this was a good idea?
Ah, well. At least there’s gingerbread. Can’t argue with gingerbread.