An Austrian Christmas: fir boughs, sweets, and tradition
Austria is Christmas country. Travelers with a penchant for the folklore and craftsmanship of the holiday will find them year round in this land of jagged peaks and loden pine forests. There are villages dedicated to it, museums preoccupied with it, artists inspired by it, and craftsmen engaged in the wonders of it - in all nine districts of the country.Skip to next paragraph
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Austrians are so unabashedly in love with Christmas that they stretch the season from the end of November to Jan. 6, with special traditions that revolve around St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. If you are fortunate enough to be there during that time, you will find a fairyland of outdoor markets, shop windows brimming with delectable sweets, and entire towns bedecked in fir boughs, red ribbons, and tiny white lights. Once a majestic tree, surrounded by the Christmas market, is placed in the central square, the season is in full swing.
These markets are considered the absolute precursor of Christmas, and city records testify that the one in Vienna has been held annually since the Middle Ages. Spectacular markets are staged in Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Graz, but most Austrians head for their favorites in rural villages. There they claim you find the finest candies for hanging on the tree, and the most unusual decorations, and the best breads - from braided Striezelm to the heavy nut- and fruit-laced Zeltonm. Among artisans involved in the business of Christmas, none is better known than Romana Grugerbauer. Even if your visit to Austria does not coincide with the holiday, a one-hour detour east of Salzburg to her Kremsmunster workrooms is worth the effort.
Here, the precise, rather twinkling woman seems surprised that the decorations she has always made for family and friends now enjoy worldwide demand. A staff of 10 local women work all year to fill orders for her special whimseys made from natural products. Angels rise from woodshavings, hearts from mounds of cloves, and bright-red sleighs from wood and cinnamon logs.
In Kremsmunster, one should not miss a tour of the 1,200-year-old monastery of the same name. Within its ancient halls there is a varied holiday musical season, as well as week-long courses devoted to the Austrian art of decorating Christmas cakes and ceramic painting.
In addition to such special local activities, each district schedules events that range from caroling and nativity plays to mystery pageants. These productions are heavy with overtones of triumph over darkness, the solstice, and the eventual coming of spring. The only way to understand their diversity is to tuck into a few small villages and watch the rituals firsthand.
Kirchdorf, not far from Kremsmunster, is a fine pausing place. Ringed by hills that are a shade more gentle than the Alps to the south, the village of 1, 000 locals welcomes almost 3,000 visitors each year. During the winter, horse-drawn sleighs hung with gaily jingling bells shush over the snow, and every home take lodgers.
''It is so friendly here,'' one of the residents told me, ''that we don't even shut [lock] our car doors because everyone is knowing everyone.''
The more adventurous would do well to continue to Fritz Dornauer's chalet on the Greisner Alm. Over 3,000 feet high, the simple restaurant-inn offers an absolute communion with nature. Perched on a spectacular site on the edge of a wilderness, it confronts only silence and the sheer precipices of the Wilderkaiser rocks. Destination of mountain climbers, hikers, and skiers - who come to taste Dornauer's famous Kaiserschmarrenm a sugar-dusted confection of diced pancakes heaped with fruity jam - the Alm is not on the way to anything. Except perhaps, Ernest Hoffman's cottage.
The tiny hut, set deep into a cleft of the hill, is undistinguished in this breathtaking place. But it represents the utter simplicity of mountain life that is not only possible but desirable in the Tyrol.
Hoffman, a distiller of pine oils, smiles as he describes his March-through-October days that begin with a search for perfect pine boughs. ''At 3 in the morning I begin my walk of one hour and a half,'' he says as he stirs a giant bubbling caldron with an oversize ladle. ''It is important to get the pines that grow at the tree line, because the strongest oils come from where the air is pure.''
The pungent aroma swirls in the bubbling steam, creating the aura of a thousand Christmas trees. We sit around the warm fire on hand-carved chairs, intrigued equally by the perfumed air and his stories. When it is time to leave, we carry away a trove of pine soaps and gingham-wrapped sachets for giving and remembering.
Another intimate base for excursions is Buechl in Styria. This district, which stretches from Vienna to the south, sprawls over 6,000 square miles of rolling timberland and farms.