One of the main benefits of an exchange is the cultural experience, and there has been no shortage of cultural experiences over the past few weeks as the Christmas season has entered into full swing. As a history student, I am very interested in cultural traditions and in observing the nuances and differences between cultures. I can say that there is nothing quite like Austria/Germany at Christmas time. While the general gist of the holidays is the same, there are several traditions that are different to me and took me a little while to get used to. Overall though, the Christmas traditions here seem to be much more rooted in history and culture, and less commercialized than in North America. It is wonderful to experience the festive atmosphere in Graz and I am really looking forward to being home for the holidays.
Without a doubt my favourite part of Christmas in Austria. There are Christmas markets in pretty much every square in Graz. The stalls sell various Christmas-related gifts, food, and glühwein–the most delicious mulled wine! I have been lucky enough to also experience Christmas markets in Vienna, Prague and Cologne. They are all quite similar, but also unique in their own way.
Saint Nicholas vs. Christkindl
This took a little while for me to understand, but there are two Christmas figures similar to Santa Claus in the Austrian/German tradition. On the evening of December 5th, children leave their shoes outside their house, and Saint Nicholas puts candy and gifts in the shoes if they have been good. Christkindl (translation: the Christ child) is the figure who brings presents on Christmas. However, he does not arrive in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, or come through the chimney. To add to my initial confusion (two gift giving figures?), Saint Nicholas and Christkindl are depicted pretty much identically: red suit with white trim, long white beard, bag full of toys, etc.
While I was familiar with the advent calendar tradition, the practice of lighting four candles (one for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) was entirely new.
The Krampus is, to my knowledge, unique to Austria, although there is a similar-but-differently-named character in Germany. The Krampus is essentially Saint Nicholas’ sidekick. If you haven’t been good, the Krampus comes and punishes you. Graz has a Krampuslauf (Krampus parade) at the beginning of December, which involves dozens of individuals dressing up as a Krampus and marching through the city center. It is quite a sight to behold…
One of the most informative parts of an exchange is learning about a new culture, but also how that makes you reflect on your own culture and identity. Throughout my experience here I have reflected many times my own traditions and culture, and as a result have developed a greater awareness of my “Canadian-ness.”