An Austrian Großvater — dressed in snow boots, heavy socks, knee breeches, corduroy vest, buttoned coat, and felted hat — ladles hay with the sort of unhurried cheerfulness that suits his decades of farm life and contrasts with the impatience of fourteen woolly sheep pressing to the manger. Three lambs further enliven the scene, the youngest prancing around as if in a great hurry for its mother’s grassy mouthfuls to turn into tastier milk. I feel like a rather comical addition to the scene, what with my high-heeled dress boots and unfamiliarity with farming rituals. But, it is a privilege to stand in a barn on Christmas Day and think of the Baby that was laid in a manger — a rather dirty, prickly affair, surrounded with jostling animals expecting dinner and oblivious to the incalculable worth of the Bundle in their feeding trough.
Christmas in Stadt Haag
On Monday afternoon I took the train to Haag, a small town west of Vienna and home to my friend Julia. Her mother had invited me to share an Austrian Christmas with their family — with the added twist of making it a surprise for Julia! A synopsis of even two days is a trick.
My introduction to Haag began with a walk with Julia around town. The town’s crowning jewel is certainly the church — founded in 1032 and the present building dating from the 1400s. Built as a Wehrkirche (“defense church”), it was designed with a commanding view of the land below and even fitted above one entrance with a mechanism for pouring tar on would-be assailants. In more peaceful times, worshippers still find a spiritual refuge there, adding their prayers and genuflections and songs to the throngs that have gone before them.
At Christmastime, the already quaint town boasts a huge advent calendar, where during the month of December children and families gather for songs and the opening of the day’s door. Many families also make a point of carrying special candlelight home in
lanterns: Each year an Austrian child makes a trip to the Holy Land to bring home candlelight from Bethlehem, which is then distributed via churches and train stations to villages and homes all around the country.
…Christmas Eve is the high point for Austrian Christmas celebrations, steeped in traditions and close-knit family celebration. Dinner time found us (Julia, her brother Martin, mom, grandparents, and me) gathered around the table for an array of very tasty breads, cheeses, lox and sliced meats. No one felt remotely hungry afterwards! Following the meal, I listened as the others prayed the Christmas rosary, followed in turn by a ritual of blessing each room of the house to the accompaniment of incense and holy water. The evening could hardly proceed without some music, both a few Christmas arrangements for piano from yours truly and then singing “Stille Nacht” (a most cherished carol composed by a now-famous Austrian and not sung until Christmas Eve), accompanied by Mrs. Pernkopf on the organ.
Finally the tree was lit (yes, real candles!), the bell rung (signally that the Christkind had come with the presents), and we could open packages. I’m indebted to Julia and her lovely new camera for some of the better photos (and Mrs. Pernkopf, too) — thanks!
With effort, we managed to keep awake till midnight mass at, yes, 12:00 a.m.! We walked to church (about three minutes’ walk), greeted in the courtyard by the sound of a wonderfully in-tune brass group playing somewhere up in the church tower. Inside, everyone kept their coats on, but the chilly air of the vaulted stone interior didn’t dampen the festive warmth. I followed along with only marginal success, caught between familiar liturgy, incomprehensible German, sleepiness, and lovely choir and organ music.
…Christmas morning I slept later than I ever have before on the best day of the year, I’m sure! After a delicious late brunch, Julia and Martin and I headed off to the rural, mountainous area where their other grandparents live. The old farmhouse, warmed with wood stoves and festooned with the grandfather’s hunting memorabilia (each trophy decorated with a sprig of Christmas greenery), was set in a wooded acreage that forms part of a national park. Snow spread out over the lawn enhanced the sensation of remoteness. Aunts and uncles and cousins gathered for a quiet celebration. I enjoyed watching the cute children and observing the grandpa tend the sheep for the night. On the way home, we detoured past Christkindl, a town and church by the same name, named for a legend in which a figure of the Christ child supposedly worked various miracles, meriting a church being built to commemorate the spot. Now it’s also the site of a Christmas season post office — you can get a letter specially stamped from Christkindl.
…The day would not have been complete without a phone call with Dad and Mom and Hannah.
…Wednesday was very relaxed. I went to mass in order to hear the special men’s a capella choir singing for the St. Stephen’s Day service, and the rest of day was filled with good conversation, another visit with grandparents, and a very sleepy train journey home.
…Now this evening I have listened to all of Bach’s Johannes Passion and written too much, without even describing earlier events of the past week — the luncheon hosted by my roommate for music uni students (note the pile of shoes that greeted me when I came home from work and realized the success of invitations issued), the week’s visit from a Russian cellist looking for a composition teacher in Vienna, the special concert of Handel’s Messiah at the Musikverein, or going to the English theater with a whole crew of high school students to watch the Hobbit!