There are no huge surprises in store when it comes to Christmas decorations in Vienna. But some differences exist between the Viennese approach and the typical Anglo-American decorations we’re all familiar with from home or Hollywood.
- Typical decorations tend to use more natural materials
- Tree candles, Advent wreaths, and St. Barbara’s twigs are popular traditions
- Pop into department stores just after Christmas for sales on more standard decorations
- Browse the Christmas markets for handcrafted alternatives
- See also:
All hail the past
Regrettably, no ancient traditions insist we hang up wooden goat ears or an inflated pig bladder to ensure the Christkind brings the right gifts or prevent satanic pixies curdling our soy milk.
(Perhaps this is where I’ve been going wrong.)
In general, you’ll find less plastic and more glass, wood, straw, and other natural materials (with the exception of strings and strings of white LED lights).
You can get a broad feel for the decoration culture from the city’s own Christmas lights, where whites and yellows dominate. Or from the wares sold at the Christmas markets, which have a handcrafted, artisan feel.
Coming from the UK, the decorations strike me as more subtle and Victorianesque. However, you still find fluorescent Santas ho-ho-hoing their way through the starry Vienna night if you look hard enough. Many apartments, for example, place light displays in their windows or on balconies.
Here are three decorating traditions that I found relatively new after my arrival here:
1. Baumkerzen (tree candles)
Health and safety concerns have more or less killed this tradition in many countries, but not in Austria.
As part of the main Christmas celebrations on December 24th, people light up the tree with real wax candles in its branches, and the family gathers round to sing carols and other songs (then hastily snuff out the candles before the worst happens).
The authorities and other organisations issue regular warnings and advice about fire-related Christmas tree incidents, but nobody expects the tradition to end soon.
2. Adventkranz (Advent wreath)
This is a tabletop decoration featuring four candles.
A metal or straw frame wrapped tightly in spruce or other twigs forms the basic wreath, and the remaining decoration is a question of your own style and imagination.
In our home, for example, we use natural materials like nuts, cinnamon sticks, dried fruit, pine cones and mistletoe.
Traditionally, you light the first candle on the first Sunday in Advent. Another candle joins it at each of the subsequent Advent Sundays, so by the fourth Sunday all four candles are burning away.
The candles have different lengths, the idea being that you light the tallest candle first, so they all end up at roughly the same height by the end of the season.
3. Barbarazweig (St. Barbara’s twig)
Legend has it that on her way to imprisonment and eventual execution, the catholic saint, Barbara, caught her clothes in a roadside fruit tree, breaking off a twig. She took the twig with her to prison, where it flowered on the day her death sentence was passed.
On St. Barbara’s Day (December 4th), the Viennese put long twigs from a flowering tree – usually cherry or apple – in water in a warm location, then sit back and wait for the buds to burst into flower.
These days, evergreen trees often take the place of fruit trees as a source of branches (as in the photo above).
We often decorate the twigs with small baubles, ribbons and similar (much like you might decorate a Christmas tree).
This tradition dates back to at least the 13th century. It was said that young ladies could put several twigs in a vase, give each the name of a suitor, and the first to bloom was “the one”. I guess it’s an alternative to online dating.
A tip for decoration shopping
Vienna’s department stores usually have a Christmas bazaar during the Advent period. The decorations within cost considerably less than those at, for example, the Christmas markets.
Having said that, the markets have a wealth of unique decorations, handmade decorations, and similar that you probably won’t find easily (or at all) in stores or back home: look out, particularly, for glass baubles, carved wooden nativity figures, and decorated candles or tea light holders.
The seasonal store bazaars often stay open immediately after the Christmas public holidays, selling decorations at a significant discount. A good time to stock up for next year.