Festive fun abounds in Europe, from its world-famous Christmas markets, to the charming snowy landscapes of Austria's mountains, and the glistening cities of Germany, bedecked with lights. As part of our series exploring Christmas traditions around the world, today we're looking at the seasonal celebrations of two glorious, wintery nations: Austria and Germany.
Famed for its festive fir trees and Christmas markets, Germany is a delightful destination for anyone looking to soak up the season's blessings. Boasting its own range of fascinating traditions to celebrate the most magical time of the year, we've picked three of our favourites.
Most people are aware that the tradition of the Christmas tree began in Germany, and was subsequently spread to other nations (notably Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, popularised the idea in England). What is less well-known, however, is the custom of 'Christbaum-Loben', or 'Christmas tree praising', which usually takes place on December 26th. Participants visit their friends, asking to be let in to see their Christmas tree - at which point they will proclaim it to be 'ein schöner baum' - a nice tree. The hosts then offer a small glass of an alcoholic beverage, such as brandy or schnapps, in return for the compliment. Much like Christmas carollers, tree-praisers will visit multiple homes, acquiring a tipple at each, and, unlike most carollers, returning home a little tipsy.
Whilst children in the UK are busy writing to Santa, many German children instead send letters to Christkindl, or 'the Christ Child', asking for gifts. Popularised by Martin Luther, in an attempt to dissuade families from engaging with the figure of St Nicholas, Christkindl is a female child said to embody the qualities of Christ. Children will leave their letters to Christkindl on their windowsills during Advent, often decorated with glitter or pictures.
In Nuremberg, one girl is chosen each year to represent Christkindl, who then performs important duties during Advent - from visiting children in hospital, to making television appearances, and officially opening the Nuremberg Christmas Market.
St Nicholas' Day
The legend from which Santa Claus stems, St Nicholas is thought to bring presents to children in Germany who leave out shoes for him to fill. Rather than visiting on Christmas Eve, however, St Nicholas leaves his gifts on the night of December 5th, with children awakening to shoefulls of small presents - such as chocolate or nuts - on December 6th. Naughty children should be wary, though - Knecht Ruprecht, a sort of accomplice for St Nicholas, is said to leave twigs in the shoes of badly behaved children.
Whilst Austria shares some traditions with neighbouring Germany, this delightful nation has a whole host of festive customs of its own - including some rather spooky additions.
Written in Austria in 1818, 'Stille Nacht', or 'Silent Night', is still a favourite carol to this day. On Christmas Eve, it is traditional for Austrian families to gather around the Christmas tree and sing this hymnal, officially beginning the Christmas celebrations. Christmas Eve is then usually spent at home, as the shops, theatres and cinemas of Austria close at 6pm on this special night - transforming the big cities and creating a true 'silent night' across the nation.
Whilst Austrian children celebrate St Nicholas in a similar manner to their German counterparts, the punishment for bad behaviour is considerably more frightening than finding twigs in your boots. Krampus is a demonic figure, who dates back to pre-Christian times. Often pictured as a hairy, horned beast, Krampus is said to beat unruly children with branches, before stuffing them into a sack and kidnapping them. Legend has it that Krampus appears on December 5th, the night before St Nicholas' Day, when presents are being distributed to good children. Sometimes called 'Krampus Night', this has led adults to dress up as the creature, and indulge in alcohol-fuelled revels, similar in some ways to the celebration of Halloween.
Food and glühwein
As in many countries, food and drink is an important part of the Austrian celebration of Christmas. Carp is a common dish to be served for the main Christmas meal, in keeping with the Catholic tradition of refraining from meat consumption on holy days, and 'windbäckerei', or meringue, in the shape of stars, trees and other festive symbols, is often eaten as a treat.
Austria is also famed for its delicious 'glühwein', a variant of mulled wine, served warm. 'Glühwein' literally means 'glowing wine', and it is thought to have earned this name from the glowing coal fires used to heat it - as well as the warm sensation produced when consumed!