In German-speaking communities, Christmas celebrations are a blend of sweetness and coziness, as family and friends gather at Christmas markets where the air is filled with the scent of seasonal delights and the melody of Silent Night—a Christmas carol with Austrian origins. Yet, in Austria, within these festive traditions also lies one that is a bit more sinister…
Strollin’ around the Weihnachtsmarkt
Christmas markets have a rich history dating back to the 14th century when they allowed people to stock up on necessities for the cold winter months. Markets are generally called Weihnachtsmarkt, but you'll also hear Christkindlmarkt used in Austria and southern Germany. Today, Christmas markets have evolved into a spectacle of various events and a wide selection of Christmas decorations, small gifts, crafted treasures, and—perhaps most importantly—delicious food and drinks.
Many treats and the words for them are used across German-speaking regions. Crowd favorites include Glühwein (mulled wine) or Punsch (hot spiced punch), which comes in a variety of flavors, such as Beerenpunsch (berry punch) and Orangenpunsch (orange punch). For those with a hankering for something savory, try Langos (a deep-fried yeast flatbread), while those with a sweet tooth might enjoy plain, jam-filled, or chocolate-covered Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and gebrannte Nüsse (candied nuts).
There are also regional specialties—and vocabulary!—you're sure to find at Christkindlmärkte in Austria. There, your Glühwein will be served in a Häferl, the Austrian word for "mug," and you'll have the option of trying Mozartpunsch, a creamy punch inspired by the famous Mozartkugeln—chocolate confections filled with nougat and marzipan. To satisfy your hunger (and keep warm!), try Maroni (roasted chestnuts), Käsespätzle (cheese spaetzle), and Kaiserschmarrn (a sort of cut-up fluffy pancake with raisins) served with Zwetschkenröster (stewed plums).
Baby, it’s… kind of scary outside
But warm drinks and sweet treats aren't the only holiday traditions in Austria: You might also encounter a devilish creature with horns, shaggy fur, a cowbell around its waist, a rod in its claw, and a frightening visage (traditionally a wooden mask carved by hand)!
Meet the Krampus, a folkloric figure with the mission to scare and discipline children who may not have been on their best behavior throughout the year. Fortunately, there are two sides to this tradition: The Krampus is the companion of the Nikolaus (Saint Nicholas)—his friendly antagonist who rewards well-behaved children with small gifts like mandarin oranges, apples, nuts, and chocolate during their visit on December 5th or 6th. (In English, you're likely to see these names both with and without "the"—the Krampus or just Krampus—and in German you'll always use "the"!)
For those seeking an extra holiday thrill, attending a Krampuslauf (Krampus run) is an option, where a big group of Krampusse (Krampuses) takes over a square or an entire street. These events offer an opportunity to marvel at these scary-looking figures from up close… but be warned: Attendees should be sure they’ve been good this year! 😈
A little less waiting for a toy on Christmas Day
While many around the globe patiently wait until December 25th to unwrap their presents, those in Austria get to enjoy this moment a day earlier! On Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), people swap out presents, which is called Bescherung and then eat Christmas dinner (or the other way around). Instead of Santa Claus, it’s the Christkind—a child with blond locks, wings, and a halo—who delivers the gifts. Traditional meals vary across the country, spanning from a hearty Weihnachtsgans (Christmas goose) to crispy fried Karpfen (carp), or a delightful kalte Platte (cold cuts). Dinner is often rounded off with a heaping plate of traditional Christmas cookies, including Vanillekipferl (vanilla crescents), Linzer Augen (round shortcrust cookies with ground nuts, filled with jam), or Florentiner (Florentine biscuits).
On December 31st, Weihnachtskekse (Christmas cookies) are replaced with Raketen (firework rockets) and Sekt (sparkling wine) to celebrate Silvester (New Year’s Eve). For many Austrians, the new year begins with music: At midnight, people like to waltz to the sound of the Donauwalzer (The Blue Danube), which is played on all public broadcasting services. On Neujahrstag (New Year’s Day), the prestigious Neujahrskonzert (New Year’s concert) by the Vienna Philharmonics is broadcast worldwide to millions. If you find yourself well-rested around 11:15 am CET, tune in and kick off the new year like an Austrian!
Cozy, new vocabulary for the holidays!
For German learners dreaming of a white Christmas, enjoy this gift of seasonal vocabulary! Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas) und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr (and a good slide into the new year… that's Happy New Year)! 🎄🎉