Travels & Traditions: Christmas in Vienna - #702

BURT WOLF: Christmas is celebrated in cities throughout the world, but what takes place in the Austrian city of Vienna is unique. These are the darkest days of the year and the need to be reminded that the sun will return goes back to prehistoric times. The ancient Romans handled the problem with the Feast of the Unconquered Sun, which declared that sun filled days were just around the corner.

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire the idea of light overcoming the powers of darkness became a symbol for the birth of Christ---the arrival of hope when times were darkest.

For centuries, Christ was called the “Unconquered Sun” and the straw radiating like rays of light from the baby Jesus in the manger is a visual presentation of that idea. The theme of Christ bringing light to the world is the reason fires and bright objects are part of the Christmas celebration.

Vienna has been celebrating the Unconquered Sun, in one form or another, for over 2,000 years. 


BURT WOLF: Central to Vienna’s celebration are the Christmas markets. The Viennese have been setting them up since the year 1296 when the Emperor decided that the markets were needed in order to guarantee sufficient supplies to the population during Christmas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the central rules for a festival is that the festival itself and the things associated with it must be temporary. By the very nature a festival is something out of the ordinary, not part of the everyday. And if it stays around too long it loses its impact. One of the reasons that food is so important is that food doesn’t last long.

BURT WOLF: The ancient Roman festival that predated Christmas made no special reference to children or family, but the story of the birth of the Christ child changed the focus of the holiday---children and family became central to the festivities. Vienna’s City Hall is transformed into a fairy tale world for kids with luminous hearts, giant sweets, golden leaves and glittering stars. There’s an old Viennese carousel. A mini-railway. And pony rides. Inside the hall, there is a workshop where experts help children make their own Christmas presents or bake their own cookies. The City Hall market is a traditional market and the oldest in the city.


BURT WOLF: December 6th is St. Nicholas Day and St. Nicholas dressed as a bishop walks through the streets passing out candy. St. Nicholas is often accompanied by his “dark side”, a scary fur-covered creature called Krampus. Sometimes, Nicholas will question children as to their behavior during the past year. Parents often warn their children that if they don't behave properly Krampus will carry them off. It's difficult to estimate the number of children who have gone into therapy as a result of this experience but there appears to be little concern---after all---Vienna was the home town of Sigmund Freud.


BURT WOLF: The Christmas market is also the place to buy your Christmas tree. Ancient societies from the Celts to the Egyptians marked the darkest days of winter by decorating their homes with evergreen plants.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In Catholic communities, the Christ Child, The Three Kings and St. Nicholas were represented in human form. But the Protestant community didn’t think that was appropriate, so during the 1500s they introduced the Christmas tree.

BURT WOLF: It was man-sized but had no personality. It could signify Christmas in an abstract way and was therefore thought to be pure. Like Christmas, the tree was new every year and yet it was always the same---bringing light during the darkest days of the year. And it took over the role of the Three Kings and St. Nicholas by bringing presents. Eventually Catholics decided that the tree was okay and Protestants decided that even though

St. Nick was human, he was still welcome. 

Austrian families often have homemade Christmas tree decorations or a collection that they purchased over the years in the market. They are passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms.


BURT WOLF: Vienna was built at the crossroads of two major trade routes. The north-south axis was the Amber Road that went from Northern Germany to Greece. The east-west traffic was handled by the Danube River. The Danube was essential for the growth of international trade. Vienna got rich because the city controlled the traffic heading down river.

And Vienna was controlled by the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburg family came to power at end of the 1200s and hung onto it for almost 700 years. This is Schonbrunn Palace, it was their summer place. Now, most royal families increased their land and their power by using military might, but the Hapsburgs used marriage.

It all started when Maximilian who married Mary, the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, which added the Netherlands and Luxembourg to his lands in Austria. Then Max’s son Phil married Joan, the heiress of Castile. And that got him Spain and Naples and Sicily and Sardinia and all the newly conquered Spanish lands in the Americas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These guys were getting married all over the place and getting all the places where they got married. But at one point they made a fatal mistake. In order to avoid anybody marrying a Hapsburg and getting their land they started marrying each other---

a genetic disaster. It’s good to have a close family but not that close.

BURT WOLF: Swimming in the same gene pool made them weirder and weirder and in the end they lost everything.

Fortunately, what they lost is now on display to the public.


BURT WOLF: Robert Tidmarsh has been a senior guide to Schonbrunn Palace for over twenty years.

ROBERT TIDMARSH ON CAMERA: This room is the so called Marie Antoinette Room; it dates back to the time of the Emperor. What we've done is to try to show the public what a dining room was like at the time of the Emperor.

The napkins are the so called Kaiser Serviette. They're shaped similar to a fleur d'lys, and they were used, or are used for the head of state. Even today when we have a state reception, if the President of Austria gives the reception then they will use the Kaiser Serviette. If it's the Chancellor, then they don't. 

The Master of Ceremonies chose the length of the candles. So if it was going to be a long reception he would use long candles, if it was going to be a short reception, the short ones. Most of the people that came to a state reception were Austrians that had been to thousands of receptions before, and they would automatically look at the chandeliers to see how long the reception was going to take.

The Emperor ate very quickly, which is not quite true. If he did, he would have looked like me. He ate very little and finished very quickly, and that led to a problem. 

As soon as the Emperor stopped eating everybody else was obliged to stop.

Most of the restaurants near to the Schonbrunn or near to the Hofburg or the hotels, knew about the problem. They knew that the reception would be over very quickly, and they were getting ready for the end of the reception. And the end of the reception would have been that moment, as soon as the Emperor stopped eating and everybody left the Hofburg or Schonbrunn and went to the next best hotel for a meal.

BURT WOLF: Schonbrunn has its own Christmas market with a focus on hand crafts, decorations and food.

Families shop for Christmas tree decorations that will be passed down from one generation to the next.

Festive candles bring light and wonderful fragrances.

The most significant things offered for sale in the Christmas market are foods and things made of food. 

At the market, stands are loaded with Kaiserschmarren, a traditional dessert made from fluffy pancakes that have been scrambled and topped with jam.

Another holiday tradition is hot mulled wine. It's wine that's been sweetened and spiced. Warms you inside and out.

And every weekend during the Christmas season Mozart’s Magic Flute is presented in the marionette theater.

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: This Company in Vienna existed 10 years in the castle of Schonbrunn and also this very famous tradition, because Maria Theresa, you now her?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Yes, well not personally.

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Not personally because it was 250 years ago ---something like that.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I'm old but I'm not that old.

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Not that old, no---she had marionettes here in the castle of Schonbrunn 250 years also --- you know Joseph Haydn?


MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: He was the composer and they did lots of operas for marionettes. Yeah he was famous at this time.


MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Then he got a short break and we are here since 10 years now.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Wonderful. What made you want to be a puppet?

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: The Magic Flute is very special for marionettes you know. As marionettes sometimes they can do things on stage what human people cannot do.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How many performances do you have a year?

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: We have The Magic Flute opera all year long.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I understand you have some new make-up.

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Ah yes new make-up. Juts a few days ago because I have to do kisses with Papa Gino and when I do too much kissing my make-up is not so nice.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Do you guys always get along?

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Yes we always get along.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: No tension, no anxiety?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You're in wonderful shape do you have a special diet?

MARIONETTE ON CAMERA: Oh I have many performances and I always have to jump something like that…

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So your physical exercise is part of the program.




BURT WOLF: Along with Christmas food and Christmas trees, Christmas music plays an essential role. There are thousands of musical compositions from Silent Night to Jingle Bells that are only played at Christmas and they always bring back memories of the celebration. Silent Night, by the way, is Austria’s most beloved Christmas carol. It was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in a small Austrian village.

During the second half of the 1700s, the Hapsburgs played a critical role in turning Vienna into the music capital of Europe--- a title which it held onto for over 100 years. Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, and Mahler all worked in Vienna.

At Christmas time the city is filled with music and some of the finest can be heard as part of the regular church services.


BURT WOLF: A central element in Vienna’s Christmas celebration is Advent.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Advent is a four-week period leading up to Christmas. It represents the 4,000 years of the Old Testament that were thought to have existed between creation and the birth of Jesus.

BURT WOLF: One of the most common traditions during Advent is the keeping of an Advent calendar. It's made up of a series of miniature doors---one for each day from the first day of Advent

through Christmas, and each day, one of the doors is opened. Inside is a picture or a saying or a little present---a little promo for what’s coming up.


BURT WOLF: The tradition of Nativity scenes outside a church goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. In the year 1223, St. Francis set up a live Nativity scene in the forest, he used a manger and real animals and invited the local population to come and join him in celebrating the birth of the Christ Child. At a time when very few people could read or write the scene was a powerful teaching tool.

In Austria, the custom of setting up a nativity scene at Christmas began in the mid-1500s. The early scenes were simple---Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and a few animals. But as the tradition took hold additional biblical elements were added. The shepherds joined in and the Three Kings arrived with their gifts. Eventually, the entire village of Bethlehem surrounded the manger.


BURT WOLF: The Imperial Hotel was originally built as a palace for the Duke of Wurttemberg. But when the Duke heard that a new street was going to pass near the building he decided to move to the suburbs. He sold his palace and never really lived here. The new owner had it refurbished into a hotel. But it still feels like a palace. 

During the month of December the hotel presents the dishes that make up the traditional foods of Christmas in Vienna.

The usual pre-Christmas meal on Christmas Eve is rather simple. The main dish is fish, most often carp. It is considered to be a sign of good fortune if you get the fish roe with your portion. It’s a common belief that a lot of little eggs will bring you a lot of good luck. The vegetable dishes usually include beets and cabbage.

The Christmas Eve meal is simple, but the Christmas feast, which in Vienna is the mid-day meal on Christmas Day, is anything but plain. At the Imperial Hotel's Christmas gathering, the meal begins with a Truffled Terrine with Mango Chutney.

The second course is Consommé with Cep Mushrooms and Pistachio Dumplings. 

Roast Goose is the traditional main course and its served with Imperial Stuffing made with Red Cabbage and Apples. Every family will have its own stuffing recipe which will often include sauerkraut, dried fruits, apples or chestnuts. At any feast we try to do two things: we make an effort to show that we are united, a part of a group, but while at the same time we try to show our individuality. The goose is a universal container; it’s the same bird that’s being roasted by all the other families. But the stuffing is unique. It is the family stuffing and makes one family different from all the others.

And there are dozens of sweet desserts like a Soufflé of Gingerbread with Chocolate Sauce and Stewed Kumquats.

And there are lots of festive breads. Christstollen is a good example---filled with nuts, raisins and dried fruits, it's the Austrian answer to Christmas pudding.

Apples and nuts are important symbols for Christmas. The apple represents the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It’s an ancient fruit, bright and shiny; it symbolizes hope and light during the darkness of winter. Austrians have been making apples part of their Christmas celebration for hundreds of years. Nuts represent destiny and life’s great puzzles. You must break them open to find out what’s going on inside.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Red and green are the colors of Christmas. Red reminds us of summer warmth and fresh flowers and green is for the leaves that we hope will return to the trees. Santa Claus is always red and green is the color of real Christmas trees.


BURT WOLF: Of all the foods associated with Christmas in Vienna, the most significant are the cookies and they are on sale throughout the city.

The official home of Vienna’s cookie monster is Demel. Demel got started in 1786 when a confectionary assistant settled in Vienna and started selling decorated baked goods. His shop, which served coffee and hot chocolate along with the pastries, became a gathering spot for the local aristocracy and his cookies became an essential part of Vienna’s Christmas celebration.


BURT WOLF: At some point during Vienna’s Christmas celebration you will end up in a coffee house. Coffee houses have been part of Viennese life since the 1600s. Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and by the sixth century Arab communities in the area were cultivating coffee. The Moslem sect called the Dervishes loved the stuff. They realized that when they drank coffee, they had more energy and they were able to stay up longer. That gave them more time at prayer. So they figured it was a gift from God. They called it 'kava,' which is where our word coffee comes from. Moslem armies attacked Vienna in 1683. When their siege failed and they headed back to the Near East, they left behind sacks of coffee beans. The Viennese discovered it, figured out how to brew it and opened up their first coffee house. A coffee house is a place to read the newspaper, play a game of billiards, have a light meal or a dessert, a glass of wine, and definitely a cup of coffee. The waiters in a true Viennese coffee house will be dressed in tuxedos and they will offer you over 20 different types of coffee and with each cup there will be a small glass of water to aid your digestion.


BURT WOLF: Vienna celebrates a very traditional Christmas, with most of the religious elements in place. But there are cities around the world where people feel that the religious aspects have been pushed out and the only thing that's left is the need to buy presents. But gift-giving is a central part of the story of Christmas.

The Christ Child was a present from god. The Three Kings brought presents for the child in the manger. And we're expected to respond to God's generosity by continuing to give gifts.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Christmas offers us the opportunity to remember that the most important lights may not be the lights around us but the lights inside us. And the darker the outside world looks the more important it is to keep the lights inside us from going out.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.