Winter Wonder Dörfer
The Vienna Review Visits Trendy and Traditional Christmas Markets - A Holiday Custom in Vienna since the Middle Ages
‘Twas the month before Christmas
And all throughout Wien
All the people set off
To be part of the scene...
at festive Christmas markets,
as they do all over Austria.
In Vienna, the largest Christmas martket is the Rathaus Christkindlmarkt – the city hall market of the Christ child. In the large Rathausplatz in front of the city hall, over one hundred booths carry the spirit (and spirits) of Christmas. And throughout, there are events for every age.
In mid-November, it is already snowing. On the Rathausplatz, multi-colored lanterns float from trees along with illuminated polar bears grasping beach balls, and wrapped candies. Carols emerge from hidden places. Evening and cold sets in. A twenty-five meter tree (one hundred and twenty years old) is lit – Rockefeller Center-style - inducing an irresistible mood of merriment.
Though the tradition of Christmas markets dates back to the 1200s, today’s celebrations come from the Biedermeier period, beginning at the turn of the 19th century, when the aristocracy first brought fir trees into their homes, setting them up in the parlor, lit with candles inspired by the practice in northern Germany.
Then, at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, as traders began coming from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire to sell their wares to the growing Bourgeois class, exchanging presents became more common and the tradition of the Christmas markets began.
Today, visitors meet here from all over the world, and each December morning, another window of the giant Advent Calendar on the face of the Rathaus is opened to reveal striking examples of Austrian contemporary art. Off to the side in a Grand Guignol under the trees, Punch and Judy are banging away at each other again in special performances (see www.christkindlmarkt.at for dates and times).
Essential to the enjoyment is a warm cider, Punsch, made of fruit juice, rum and liqueurs, or Glühwein, the Austrian version of hot mulled wine. In gloved hands holding a mug uniquely designed each year for each market. visitors are armed against the cold. Many stand outside at booths and tables, chatting and laughing with friends for hours, while light reflects off the tinsel and the ornaments hanging overhead, begging to be hung on their own tree. At 20:00 every evening is a music event around the tree.
In the wooden huts, iron works, cut glass, toys, lots of hats and gloves, and the famous Austrian Lebkuchen stimulate the journey through the center of the market, with all its glitz. In particular, you might go to the far end to the left where a large stand of ornaments features characters such as the Frog Prince, Cinderella, a British Barrister or a Russian Czar, Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio, rocking in the wind. They hang among the tchachkas of the made-in-China variety. But the finest are created in Poland, whose glass blowing tradition predates Communism and is still among the best in the world.
Heading back towards the tree on the left, you are transported to the Erzgeberg, in the Southern region of former East Germany (in real life just over the Czech border about two hours from Prague). Here are carved wood and painted works from the village of Seiffen, home to the largest Nutcracker in the world, where from the turn of the century, a world of craftsmanship evolved, making the now internationally known figures for Christmas – choirs of angels, smokers as weavers, basket makers, woodsman, hunters, and much more – at a level of quality that does not exist anywhere else in Europe, except perhaps in Sweden.
With pretzels, cotton candy or Würstl (sausages) in hand, you might want to stop at the Post Office in the Clouds to send a holiday greeting with special stamps. Then, do not miss the Oriental Pavillion featuring the world famous Steiff stuffed animals, this year, a crib in Bethlehem with its own market place. Camels, monkeys, teddies and rabbits create a magical mechanical panorama.
With a "ding ding ding" comes the Christkindl Express for the full tour of the market, which can be a boon for sore feet. Shetland ponies take children for rides and inside city hall itself is a madhouse of craft workshops that children can participate in to make Christmas gifts, from mosaics, candles and bracelets to cookies and key rings.
Dec. 6 is Austria’s Catholic celebration of the arrival of St. Nicholas, bringing gifts – as in the old days – of apples, oranges and cookies to expectant, well-behaved children, as Krampus, the devil goatman with horns, cloven hooves, and often in black rags hovers threateningly in the background to torment the undeserving.
In honor of Christmas itself, two years ago the promotional organizers of the Christkindlmarkt introduced an alternative to the previous Santa Claus whose jolliness seemed to be outflanked by overdone commercialism, and chose to physically present the Vienna Christkind in his place at the market. They looked to Nürnberg, Germany for inspiration where, since 1933, the physical presence of the Christkind or Christ child was depicted as a young girl, meant to be an androgynous angel nymph and not baby Jesus.
Originally this was a mythic fairy tale figure brought in by Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the 1500s to acknowledge the birth of Jesus Christ, which he felt the St. Nicholas story did not address. And since Protestants have no saints, the Christkind was invented.
Different legends since that time question which person Luther exactly had in mind: the baby Jesus, an angel or something else. Therefore, much research and discussion has taken place to establish this "she" as the Vienna Christkind, a golden-haired angel with crown, wings and white robe whom children originally never saw, only dreamt about, as they placed their wish lists in the window on the 24th in hopes of treats the next morning.
The Vienna Christkind is present at the market from Thursday to Sunday from 16:00 to 19:00. At 17:00, she reads Christmas stories in front of the manger by the tree; the rest of the time she is busy visiting hospitals and performing other good deeds. Now St. Nicholas and the Vienna Christkind are both celebrated as Advent messengers bringing gifts, real or imagined.
(A footnote to this is that the Christkindl came to America through German and Swiss immigrants in the 18th century and later became known as Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa Claus. The American Santa, based more on St. Nicholas, re-emigrated to Europe, only now to be replaced in return by his initial incarnation.)
Open daily from 9:00 – 21:00
Rathausplatz (U2, Rathaus or Schottentor)
Christmas Market at the Maria Theresien-Platz
Be blessed feeling of Christmas without kitsch dominates this beautiful market. Walking through a grove of fir trees brought in from Lower Austria, strung with soft white lights, emotions stir last felt as a child, impatiently counting the days until the Christkind pays a visit. Around me, young and old make their way through the market, their chatter carried by the wind. Bits of conversation filter through: Two young women discuss whether to spend the rest of the evening at a café or a pub, while several middle-aged men laugh at one man’s account of his high school reunion that weekend. Children bundled-up up the chin run in zigzags around the market through the high tables that allow the guests to mingle or to put down their drinks to light a cigarette.
Serene winter beauty combined with one or two not-so-subtle modern notes – this is what brings visitors to the Christmas market located on the Maria Theresien-Platz in the 1st District. Situated between the Kunsthistorische and the Naturhistorische Museums, the market is an oasis of visual calm – the extraordinary architecture of the museums as well as the surrounding Museumsquartier on one end and the gate to the Hofburg on the other is completed with the larger-than-life sized statue of Empress Maria Theresia, surrounded by contemporaries such as the four great field marshalls of her day: Daun, Laudon, Traun and Khevenhüller. One not-so-subtle modern touch – Austrian Schlager hits, at times blaring from hidden speakers on the grounds.
Traditional stands – 64 exhibitors – line the paths through the garden commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1866, offering tidbits traditionally sold at such markets, ranging from handicraft like hand-made wood carvings in the shape of snowflakes, to quite modern candles in the shape and color of filled beer glasses.
The hut of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is pleasingly quaint, where the Punsch and Glühwein offered are described in gold on a purple background, neatly hung in golden frames on the back wall – exotic names like Natternzungen-Elixir ("an extract to nurture the tongue") for an aromatic berry punch – are an experience in themselves, and slide down with a deceptive innocence, with the power to unravel the knots of the most hardened workaholic. Half way through the mug, the glow is back on the good old world again, and an old couple slowly making their way through the village scene seem the incarnation of permanence, and for a moment, a sense of timeless serenity falls over the scene…
The mug is empty. I look up to see the couple, younger than I thought, pass by me at a brisk walk, just trying to keep warm against the wind.
Open daily from 10:00 – 22:00
Accessible from the Museumsstraße and the Burgring
(U2, U3 Volkstheater/Museumsquartier)
Weihnachtsdorf at the Old General Hospital
I decided to ease into this year’s Christmas market season – Christmas is "big" in Vienna – by visiting one of the smaller markets first – the "Weihnachtsdorf im Alten AKH," a Christmas village on the campus of Vienna’s former General Hospital, now part of the University of Vienna (www.weihnachtsdorf.at).
At 16:00 on a Sunday afternoon, all I needed to do was follow the caravan of buggies and strollers through what is normally the private domain of students and faculty. Passing through the campus gate, the sound of traditional English (yes English) Christmas carols floated out from loudspeakers mixing with laughter and chatter of children and adults. The distinct aroma of Christmas punch and gingerbread conjured up memories of many Christmases gone by, and the glow of red and yellow lights was wonderfully welcoming in this special little village scene.
This Christmas market is the favorite of the youngest merrymakers. The "swish-swish" of snowsuits and the excited cries of small voices led quickly to an old fashioned merry-go-round, where each picks a horse for €1,50 a go. Or you can pile into a little four-wheeled pony cart for a spin around the Hof, for €2,00. The proceeds go towards the Austrian Doctors Without Borders project "Vision for Africa."
A small whinnying behind me revealed a slim but friendly looking Santa handling the reins of the cart. We hopped in. Down the narrow paths under the strings of lights, around the sturdy huts harbouring their treasures, we bounced pleasantly along, drinking in the scene. Finally, the well-trained pony stopped in front of a live nativity scene and gave the gentle donkey behind the wooden fence what we could have sworn was a friendly nod. At the other side of the market, a small steam engine confirmed that this village is the Christmas Wonderland for kids.
Looking towards the middle of the campus, the winding pathways were lined with tastefully lit wooden booths filled with scented candles, incense, glass ornaments, felt bags, cured meats, cheeses, African arts and crafts, cordials and spirits, gingerbread and honey. As we ambled along the narrow pathways, it started snowing and we ducked into one of the many Christmas punch booths, all crowded with revellers. A matronly woman at the next booth – selling an array of honey, propolis and candles made of beeswax – was happy to let me in on the secret of which booth sold the best punch. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask which kind was best and by the time I had made up my mind between Mozart punch, marzipan punch, Amaretto punch, Marroni (chestnut) punch, coconut punch and Caipirinha punch, I had been jostled back to the end of the line. What ever happened to the simpler days of yore, when you had the choice between raspberry and orange?
Open daily from 14:00 – 22:00
University Campus Spitalgasse 2
If you belong to the "Bah! Humbug!" minority bored with all that Christmas spirit, you should check out the Museumsquartier (MQ), the hip alternative to Christmas markets open from Nov. 15 to Dec. 23. Crossing the colossal courtyard, it became instantly clear that the average age of the visitors (not counting children) had dropped a good 5 years. No Christmas carolling here: a DJ in a glass booth was playing some "winter sounds" – Chill, R & B, Alternative – all hosted by FM4 (see www.mqw.at for the full programme).
Through the Eispalast (Ice Palace) made of the oversize outdoor lounges which line the courtyard during the warmer months, we came upon a projection called Winterlicht (Winter Light) displaying excerpts from the design scene. Inside the Palace, red light reflects off the metallic ornaments and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Here, the year-round cafés of the MQ have set up stands to serve some of their own choice specialties, as well as traditional Christmas punch.
For the sporty types, there is an outdoor curling rink, located beside a stand ironically named Aloha and an off-road, remote-controlled dragster racetrack on what is a wading pool in the summer.
On Saturdays, special outdoor games give children a "kid-friendly" alternative to Christmas power shopping – some of which can be done in the designer shops of the MQ, for those who prefer more modern gifts and decorations, beneficiaries of the energy and vision of the Vienna designers who haunt the MQ.
Open daily from 14:00 – 22:00
MQ Courtyard (U2, Museumsquartier)
Altwiener Christkindlmarkt at the Freyung
When enough is enough, three minutes away across the ring is the Altwiener Christkindlmarkt on the Freyung. Here, a more intimate scene comes to life, like a world documented in 17th century paintings. At 16:00 and 17:00 each day, performances are held on a small covered stage of chamber music, Austrian folk choirs, traditional dance groups and ensembles using brass and horns as well as historic instruments (program available). By now, another hot drink is in order, with chestnuts from the famous ‘Marroni Mann’.
Booths are filled with homemade candles, lots of stocking stuffers, hand-made crèches, baskets, book stalls, local cheeses and the not-to-be missed honey producer, Christophe Zalingen. A bough of mistletoe might also be found
For it’s now almost Christmas
And bundled in down
Not a creature is stirring…
except, perhaps, under the mistletoe.
Open daily from 10:00 – 21:00
Freyung (U2, Schottentor)