Christmas is undoubtedly the most important holiday in Austria. As in other European nations, December 6th is the day Saint Nicholas, the giver of gifts, makes his rounds. Arrayed in a glittering Bishops robe and accompanied by his devilish assistant, Knecht Rupnecht, he can occasionally be seen roaming the streets giving sweets and apples to good children while his companion playfully beckons "little sinners" to feel the string of his golden rod.
On December 24th, when the city is frantic with last minute shoppers, the countryside is a refuge for quiet traditions. Farmers chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men on the archway of the stable door; C for Caspar, M for Melchoir, and B for Balthazar, to protect the heard from sickness in the coming year. Christmas trees are lit on this day and in many villages "shelter-seekers" plod through deep snow from farm to farm re-enacting the plight of Mary and Joseph as they sought shelter on the eve of Christ's birth.
In the snow-covered Alps, families descend from their mountain homes to the valley below, illuminating the night with torches held high to light their way in the darkness. Carolers gather in church towers and village squares to guide the people to Christmas services with their melodies. All shops, theaters and concert halls close their doors for this is an evening spent with only with family.
Following church services, families return home for their more intimate celebrating. First Christmas Eve dinner is served, often with "Gebackener Karpfen" (fried carp) as the main course. Dessert may be chocolate and apricot cake called "Sachertorte" and Austrian Christmas cookies called "Weihnachtsbaeckerei" (yes, this is the actual spelling).
After the meal, the ringing of a bell signals the opening of a door long locked against the anxious eyes of the little ones. For the first time the children are permitted to witness the Christmas tree glistening with lights and colored ornaments, gold and silver garlands, candies and cookies. Beneath the tree is usually arranged an elaborate manger scene. Almost every family owns hand- carved manger figures handed down from generation to generation.
Father opens the Bible and reads of the "Kristkindl," Christ Child. Then all sing traditional Christmas carols such as "Silent Night" and "O'Tannenbaum." After this the presents are distributed and opened.
In Austria, there is no Santa Claus. Children are taught that their presents have been brought by the "Kristkindl," a golden-haired baby with wings, who symbolizes the new born Christ. The story tells how the Christ child comes down from heaven on Christmas Eve and, with his band of angels, decorates and distributes trees.
OF SPECIAL NOTE...
Advent wreaths are made of various types of Christmas greenery used with a combination of other decorations. The wreath is then suspended by ribbon on a decorative, colorful stand. Four candles, representing the four Sundays before Christmas, ar attached to the wreath. The first candle only is lit on the first Sunday, the second candle is lit on the second Sunday, and so on; all four candles are lit on Christmas day.
TRADITIONAL DISHES FROM AUSTRIA
Gebackener Karpfen (Fried Carp)
3 - 3 ½ lb.s carp fillet
2 eggs, beaten
¼ lb. shortening (not butter)
1 lemon, sliced
Wash fish fillet and cut into serving slices. Sprinkle with sale and let stand for 1 hour. Put bread crumbs, flour, and beaten eggs in three separate dishes. Roll each slice of fish first in flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs. Fry slices on both sides in shortening until golden brown. Arrange slices on a hot platter and garnish with lemon.
Sachertorte (Chocolate and Apricot Cake)
1 cup butter
8 egg yolks
6 oz. cooking chocolate
1 cup confectioner's sugar
10 egg whites
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons apricot jam
Cream butter. Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Add gradually to creamed butter melted chocolate, sugar , and the egg yolks, one by one, stirring constantly. Add flour and a dash of vanilla and beat well. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into batter. Pour mixture into a well-greased 10-inch mold. Bake at 300 degrees F. for about 1 hour. Let cool and turn out of mold. Split and spread heated and slightly diluted apricot jam over the lower half of the cake. Replace top and brush with apricot jam and cover with chocolate frosting. (Recipe below.)
1 cup sugar
7 ox. cooking chocolate
1 cup water
Boil sugar and water until sugar is completely dissolved. Melt the chocolate separately in a double boiler. Add sugar syrup gradually to chocolate, stirring constantly. When cooled, frost the cake.
Weihnachtsbaeckerei (Christmas cookies)
4 ½ cups flour
1 ½ cups sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup milk
1 egg yolk
3 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
1 ½ cups butter
Sift flour, baking powder, and salt onto a board. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, and milk to butter and sugar. Mix lightly. Pour the moist ingredients into a depression in the flour and work ingredients into a dough with a knife. Divide the dough into 4 parts. Roll out and cut into desired shapes with cookie cutter. Place on a greased baking sheet and brush with egg yolk.
Bake in a moderate oven, at 300-350, until golden brown.