An Old-fashioned Christmas

The holiday brings out the best in Austria -- and vice versa
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AUSTRIA can seem solemn and closed to a first-time visitor, but at year's end it comes fully alive. Cities and towns are continuous music festivals, and the usually banklike hours of shops comfortably dilate to match those of the open-air markets that spring up during the four weeks of Advent. Most cities have a feverish Christmastime gaiety. But Salzburg and Vienna retain their composure while being at their most welcoming. I attribute this to the Catholicism that runs deep. In Austria a basic piety, rather than commercialism, seems to underlie the nearly constant activity. As a Jew who grew up not celebrating what has by now become a largely ecumenical holiday, I was moved, when I visited during Advent last year, by the emphasis on the homemade over the store-bought, and by the very merchandise for sale at the markets: simple toys, ornaments, and decorations meant to enhance time spent together at home.

Aside from the open face that Austria presents during December, several things mark it as an obvious choice for Christmas visitors. True, Germany may be able to lay claim to more Christmas music, and it has a longer history of decorating the evergreen Christmas tree. But Austria vigorously adopted these traditions, and southern Germany and Austria are still the places to find echt candlelit trees, ribbons and boughs on the windows, and carols sung in the cold. (Although I did see a few snowflakes last December, the weather required a lined raincoat rather than a parka and warm woolen mittens.)
A German living in Vienna once explained to me why he prefers to be in Austria at any time of year: the food is better. On Christmas Day goose and venison may be the centerpieces, but throughout the season shoppers fortify themselves by stepping into a bar-café for a quick sandwich or a sausage or a warm buttered roll or a salt stick or, of course, a coffee and one of what are probably the world's best pastries. Much of Austrian cuisine originated in other countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The multi-layered tortes synonymous with Vienna were probably borrowed from Italy, and strudel from Turkey via Hungary. But they reached their apotheoses in the skilled and competitive hands of court-inspired Viennese bakers, and it remains impossible anywhere else to find so many cakes and pastries made so well.

Perhaps in no other country is seasonal celebrating so codified and sustained. If you can't visit Salzburg or Vienna on an Advent weekend, the height of the Christmas markets and concerts, and if you don't have the fortitude to face the crowds in Vienna at New Year's, rest assured that the cultural programs continue well into January, and so does the good cheer. (The Austrian National Tourist Office, at 212-944-6880, or at www.anto.com, can provide a great deal of information on accommodations, events, and the country's famous ski slopes, for instance those near Innsbruck and Kitzbühel.)

"I spent the holidays in Rome once," a friend from an Austrian family told me while enumerating the many things I should do during my visit to Austria. "I was so annoyed. They simply have no idea about Christmas."

SALZBURG is, of course, the birthplace of Mozart, and his image and works are inescapable there. Almost every night during Advent a concert in the vast fortress complex above the city features his music, and smaller churches offer more-intimate settings for music; in late January a week-long festival commemorates his birthday. Midway between the city center and the fortress is the loveliest small church -- at Nonnberg, the abbey where Maria Kutschera lived as a novice before being sent off to be the Von Trapp choir mistress. I did not take a tour of the many places in and around Salzburg that were used during the filming of The Sound of Music, but I admit to having been thrilled one morning when I was the only visitor to the abbey church and an unseen female choir suddenly started singing. Mozart dominates even the narrow, pedestrians-only main shopping street, Getreidegasse, which bristles with wrought-iron and gilded-wood shop signs. His birthplace, a modest fourth-floor apartment midway along the street, is advertised with lettering across the wide yellow-stucco façade that makes the building resemble a department store.

Part of the passing Getreidegasse parade on a December afternoon might be a group of young men fantastically dressed as Perchten -- multipurpose figures from Germanic mythology who are said to drive away bad spirits and to reawaken the dormant pre-winter earth by stamping life and light back into it. Around Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, the Perchten, dressed in animal-skin suits and horned masks, are called Krampus; parents warn their children that the Krampus will take them away if they don't behave. Figures dressed in gorilla suits occasionally stomp down Getreidegasse in a cloud of dry-ice vapor, loudly ringing cowbells and making gestures as if to snatch small children (or, perhaps, laggardly shoppers); Saint Nicholas follows behind, genially passing out sweets.

A Christmas market spreads under arcades leading from Getreidegasse into several small courtyards and plazas. Food and drink are as much a part of the markets as handicrafts, ornaments, decorations, and toys. The principal foodstuff to buy is Lebkuchen, a hard gingerbread baked in elaborately incised wooden molds and often used as a Christmas decoration. To snack on there are thick slices of dark bread covered with smoky home-cured ham or salted Schmalz -- which in Austria means lard, not chicken fat, and is the spread of choice.

On the Sunday I arrived in Salzburg, the Lion's Club was operating one of the many tented booths at the central Residenz Christkindlmarkt, and Salzburgers greeted friends from nearby towns who had come in to shop and lend a hand. Many were dressed in the Trachten, or folk costumes, they had worn to church, some with embroidered shirts beneath gray-and-green loden jackets and coats. Nearly every shopper at a Christkindlmarkt stops for a cup of fruit tea, mulled Glühwein, or wine-spiked fruit Punsch; their orangey, spicy fragrances practically define the markets.

One woman told me that the booth she runs is her avocation: she does business only twenty-six days a year, but attends gift shows and plans her Christmas-market merchandise the rest of the year. I admired the hand-painted glass ornaments she had bought in Vienna, the Latvian linens she had found at a Frankfurt fair, and the scented clay ornaments she had molded using her collection of folk-art stamps. The centerpieces of gilded poppy pods, dried fruit, and cinnamon sticks tied with red-plaid ribbon, though, seemed inspired more by Martha Stewart than by any rustic tradition. Along with the kitsch that devolves from all folk art, this blending of the authentic and the contrived typifies the markets.

A decorous but distinct battle is taking place concerning the city's most famous contribution to Christmas -- "Silent Night." The hymn was first sung at the 1818 Christmas Eve mass in the church of Oberndorf, a village about twenty miles from Salzburg, with guitar accompaniment by Joseph Mohr, the parish priest, and Franz Gruber, a local schoolmaster and church organist, singing bass. Mohr wrote the words, and Gruber has long been considered the composer, and two places Gruber lived are now museums. On Advent Sundays busloads of tourists file into Silent Night Square in Oberndorf to hear choirs render the song in Silent Night Chapel.

Several years ago an assistant film producer named Hanno Schilf, taken by the story of Mohr (an illegitimate child who was educated by the Church in recognition of the musical talent that made him an invaluable choir member), decided to research "Silent Night." He concluded that Mohr had as much to do with the music as Gruber did, if not everything; in the text of a flyer distributed by the tourist office Schilf demoted the presumed composer to arranger. Schilf rented rooms in the small Salzburg house where Mohr was born, found and installed homespun furnishings of the kind that a poor but industrious household would contain, and opened his own Silent Night museum in time for the 1996 Salzburg Festival.

A natural actor, Schilf explains his views on Mohr's life and the carol while serving visitors coffee and homemade Kipferl, the addictive crumbly vanilla-and-ground-nut cookies that nearly every Austrian family makes during Advent and automatically offers to guests. Schilf is not only protective of Mohr and prickly about the pro-Gruber forces; he has written his own story of the carol -- "Franz warned Joseph to be careful and showed him a whole new dimension of his personality, an opportunistic side" -- and had the small book translated into seven languages. A multi-part documentary about the carol was recently shown on Austrian television and is to be condensed into a feature film that, Schilf says, will be the biggest thing to come out of Salzburg since The Sound of Music.

IN Vienna, Advent is mostly a countdown to New Year's, when the open plaza around St. Stephen's Cathedral, in the heart of the city, is another Times Square. Crowds are so tightly packed that movement becomes involuntary, and Italian is as likely to be spoken as German -- Italians, too, seem to think that Austrians have better ideas about the holidays, to judge by the annual "invasion" some Viennese describe. The opera has special performances and, in February, its famous ball, a boon to formal-wear-rental businesses. Fortunately, concerts and operas continue in the weeks after the crowds leave. (If you'd like to attend the opera, a concierge should be able to help; he or she might even be able to snare a ticket to one of the city's many balls, which mostly take place between New Year's Eve and Shrove Tuesday.)

But the Viennese by no means scant Christmas; they even devote a Web site, www.Christkindlmarkt.at, to it. I toured many of the Christmas markets; the one with the most charming setting was in Spittelberg -- an arty neighborhood just beyond the Ring whose intimate and elegant neoclassical houses, built in the mid-nineteenth-century Biedermeier period, have recently been restored by young professionals. Both the neighborhood and the market have a bohemian feel. Booths feature the carved leather, crystals, and health food (organic Lebkuchen) also stocked by local shops, and the people behind the counters are likelier to wear tie-dyed T-shirts and love beads than Trachten. The three parallel streets on which the market is centered become a kind of open house, with cafés, bars, galleries, shops, and performance spaces (for mimes, clowns, and avant-garde two-character plays) keeping the same long hours as the market, and young people with big plastic cups of Glühwein or beer crisscrossing the streets. In the evening the outdoor picnic tables where shoppers can eat sausage and other snacks become as crowded and jolly as those in Grinzing, a suburb famous for its patchwork of gardens in which people drink new wine when the weather turns nice.

Spittelberg is also the site of my favorite hotel in Vienna, the Altstadt, a 1905 apartment building with twenty-five high-ceilinged rooms and four small suites, each decorated in a different and nicely unprecious style. The owner, Otto Wiesenthal, a former art dealer and the descendant of an artistic Viennese family, distributes a tiny and invaluable brochure about his favorite restaurants, cafés, bars, and "hide aways," sorted by price and neighborhood and even by what kind of crowd to expect. Wiesenthal told me that he wrote it to avoid repeating the information to guests every day; the guide is available in English online at www.altstadt.at/guide.htm. The Altstadt is at least a ten-minute walk from most tourist sites, but to my mind its homeyness and reasonable price (rooms start at $120; the telephone number is 011-43-1-526-33-99-0) compensate for the inconvenience. (In Salzburg my choice would be the plush Oesterreicher Hof, where rooms start at $187; telephone 011-43-662-889-77-351.)

In the middle of Vienna I found a Christmas wonderland -- a distillation of the beauty of holiday folk traditions -- all in one store. Tostmann Trachten is the profitable labor of love of Gesiene Tostmann, who in the twenty-five years since she took over a store her parents started has helped to keep artisanry alive all over Austria. The cellar and ground floor feature handmade clothes and home furnishings, and the second floor is Tostmann's own folk-art museum, in which one room is equipped as a dry-goods general store from the Biedermeier era and other rooms are decorated with period furniture, costumes, and folk art.

For Christmas the store transforms itself, opening two additional sections of a stone basement and stocking them with ornaments, toys, and decorations you might think weren't being made anymore: painted-glass icicles, snow crystals, locomotives, and log cabins; miniature figures carved from walnut shells; dollhouse-scale farm tools; matchbox train sets; felt slippers; rag dolls; festoons of ingeniously knotted straw stars. One Advent Sunday afternoon I went to a folk-music recital in the largest of the second-floor rooms, where at other times of year Tostmann offers craft classes. Several of the little cellar rooms were serving as candlelit extensions of the upstairs museum, with antique crèches from various regions. The Trachten-clad saleswoman who acted as my guide identified herself as a Greek Jew, as curious as I to explore the home of Christmas traditions.

I had invited longtime friends, a Viennese family, to join me at the concert, and they were surprised and enchanted at the variety and authenticity of the goods on display. The father did not lose the occasion to give a gentle reminder of the spirit of Christmas. "No," he said reprovingly to his son, who held up a gilded apple as a potential gift for his sister. "The only kind of gift to give is one you want yourself."


Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995).


The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; An Old-Fashioned Christmas; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 44 - 49.



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