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.