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.

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.

Buechl, a mere handful of cottages tacked above undulating fields, is so small that the people who live here usually say they come from Weiz, the next, slightly larger town. However, its size is one reason visitors feel so welcome in Buechl; they are even invited to follow St. Nicolas on his house-to-house rounds.

If this is not enough, Buechl boasts the Hotel Modernshof, one of the Romantik hotel group's most outstanding properties. Neither grand in scale nor architecture, the 300-year-old remodeled farmhouse is simply there, next to its barn in its own orchard. Inside, it is filled with interesting antiques, cozy sitting areas, and yellow-ginghamed guest rooms that open to a carved balcony. The owners, Josef and Christina Maier, are quietly attentive, but it is their son Walter, a Swiss-trained chef, who has changed a good inn into a fine one.

His exquisite cuisine, accented by home-grown ingredients, is served with the perfect cadence one imagines occurring in a royal household. Chef Maier's talent translates desserts into works of art, and it is likely that the wild mushrooms on your plate were growing in the forest before dawn.

Just as these small places telescope traditions, so, too, are they home to what many consider the most enduring symbol of Austrian Christmas - the Krippem, or creche. These masterpieces of woodcarving, most often executed by men of humble origin, are all different. Some are lifesize, others Lilliputian. Many draw inspiration from Alpine meadows and mountains, with the figures dressed in Tyrolean garb.

Permanent exhibits can be seen all year in the museums of Innsbruck and Saalfelden. Others, like the one in St. Peter's Church in Vienna, are only up for Christmas.

If you are based in the Tyrol, you'll see a Krippe in every village. The most outstanding are in Axams, Inzing, Oberfuss, and Neustift, near Brixen. The creche in Thaur, outside of Innsbruck, features more than 60 life-size models, and the one in Bad Ischl, with 300 carved and painted figures, is dazzling.

My favorite is in Christkindl - Austria's best-known Christmas village - near the iron foundry town of Steyr. The creche is housed next door to the post office. Within a tiny theater, the production of primitive art - that took carver Karl Klauda 40 years to complete - comes to life. Of the 270 figures in Klauda's fantasy, 170 are movable figures that somberly react to the tinny sound of a newly electrified hand organ: Angels ring bells; shepherds doff hats; woolly sheep hurry along a track. Charlemagne, Isaac, Moses, and other historic greats stride before a pasteled Jerusalem.

It is enchanting. But no more so than a visit with artisans like Joseph Schiltberger who carry on the tradition.

The woodcarver and his wife, Anna, live in an isolated cottage at the edge of the forest in Steyrling, about two hours southeast of Salzburg.

No matter the season, inside his workshop it is Christmas. Kings plod through knee-high tendrils of linden shavings, while delicate angels, sheep, and peasant children appear here and there. Some are finished and ready to leave; others wait for the refinement of his chisels and the caress of his gnarled but gentle hands.

''All through the year I work on the figures,'' he shyly explains, adding that many are sold in fine shops, such as Veritas in Linz. Some are direct commissions from collectors ordering one figure each year to add to their own creches; others are models for the students who study under him.

Most Austrians agree that their Christmas is everywhere. They see it in forests of snowy spruce trees and hear it in bells that peal across valleys. But they say the real heart of Christmas is in the simple refrains of ''Silent Night ,'' which was written here by an Austrian in 1818. Even the smallest child knows the story of the poor schoolmaster who composed the tune for words written by a priest. The song, first played on a guitar, was to compensate for the broken church organ, which the villagers were too poor to have fixed for Christmas.

Each year at about 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, a festive little train leaves Salzburg station for its annual journey to Arnsdorf, the hamlet where Franz Gruber composed the music. The 30-minute ride is a traditional custom for many locals.

First, there is caroling in front of Gruber's schoolhouse. Then, the group slowly wends its way over three miles of snow-encrusted fields to Oberndorf. It is invariably cold, and thick flakes often hush footfalls.

Once the assemblage reaches the tiny Silent Night Chapel (built on the site of the original St. Nicholas Church that burned down) there is an inevitable, almost embarrassing pause. Everyone seems to be waiting for the right moment. Then - ''Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht . . .'' -the first sweet notes pierce the air.

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