Hi Readers! It is already halfway through my exchange and I am NOT here for it! Time is moving too fast and I am not even ready to think about going home. Five months used to seem like eternity, but now that thats all the time I have here, it feels like a minute! I survived the dreaded holiday time—where most exchangers feel overwhelmed with homesickness—and have lived to tell you all about it…
In September, my host mom mentioned to me an article she read about American Thanksgiving and asked me about how my family celebrates it. After a long conversation, it was decided, we were going to celebrate it here in Austria. Fast forward a few months to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My host mom and I spent the whole day in the kitchen, making Pumpkin Pie, Sweet Potato Casserole, Green Beans, and of course a Turkey! My host brother thought it'd be disgusting to eat marshmallows on sweet potatoes and pumpkin as a dessert. I actually bet with him on if he’d like it or not. Funny enough, he was the only one of my family who actually liked the combo of marshmallows and sweet potatoes. The rest of my family took one bite, and politely scraped the remaining marshmallows aside. My brothers still owes me those five euros… The day was overall a wonderful time to spend with my host fam, and gave me lot to be thankful for….
I survived my first Austrian Christmas and I am here to write all a bout it! It was the most beautiful and loveliest experience of my entire exchange and I’m pretty sad to see it go. To start, I thought I’d write down some traditions that we celebrate in Austria, that aren’t celebrated back in the U.S.
In Austria we have Christmas Markets. This tradition dates back to the first Winter Market in Vienna in 1298.They are little markets of huts where one can buy handmade gifts, sweets, or hot drinks. The two traditional drinks of Christmas Markets are Glüwein (A wine mulled with spices and tea) and Punsch (Warm punch). They are magical, quaint, little villages in different important parts of the town. They begin in Mid November and go up until Christmas.
Okay, so some people have this tradition in America, but it comes from Europe. An Advent Calendar is a Calendar with a little window for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Typically it has chocolate or sweets inside. Our family had one with beautiful pictures inside, and my mom had made little sacks to open with a sweet inside for every child in the family. My class also did an Advent Calendar with a bag of sweets for a different student each day.
Every family has a wreath on their table with four candles. Every Sunday before Christmas we light a new one until all four are lighted. Traditionally, Advent Wreaths have three purple candles and one pink, however ours had four green-grey candles. Every Sunday we’d have an Advent Breakfast. We’d sing Christmas songs as we light the new candle. My host dad made song books filled with traditional Austrian Folksongs and it had all their favorite Christmas songs inside. My class also had an Advent Kranz that we “lit” (the candles were fake) every Friday. I think this was probably my favorite Austrian Tradition.
In Austria, a predominantly Roman Catholic Country, gifts aren’t brought by Santa Claus. They are brought by Christkind (Baby Jesus). Along with the presents, the whole tree is brought and decorated by Christkind. How an infant is able to pull this off I have no idea. But that is the magic of Christmas and Jesus’s miraculous powers…
St. Nikolaus and Krampus
On the 6th of December, St. Nikolaus comes and leaves goodies for well behaved children. We all got a chocolate Nikolaus in our window from St. Nikolaus. On the eve of St. Nikolaus’s Day, his companion, Krampus comes to punish misbehaved children. The tradition is that he puts the bad children in a sack and hits them with a stick. Today, in small towns, men dress up in sheep skins, ragged clothes, chains, and devil-like masks and run around the town whipping whoever is in their way. I was visited by Krampus at my waltz school. He and St. Nikolaus made a visit. All of the students had to learn a special “Krampus Dance” and if we did it poorly we were whipped by Krampus! It was honestly the most terrifying dance lesson of my life.
We celebrated the Winter Solstice! We were invited along with 25 others to a traditional Austrian Winter Solstice celebration. We hiked up a snowy mountain at night to a mountain hut where we drank Glüwein, Tea, and Frankfurters. Then we went outside and sang traditional Austrian songs around a Bonfire. The last song we all sang while holding hands. It was about life and friendship. Then we all jumped over the fire to bring luck in the new year. We then climbed down the mountain. It was so beautiful! You could see the snow perfectly as it was a full moon. My host dad later told me that probably only 500 people in Austria celebrate the Winter Solstice every year, and that I was surely the only RYE Student to ever celebrate it. It was so wonderful to celebrate such an old tradition! I will never forget it.
Leading up to Christmas
Now that I’ve identified some differences, here are some of the wonderful moments leading up to Christmas!
Going to the Movies with Friends
I finally got the courage to ask girls from my class to hang out! We saw the new Nutcracker film, and ate so much popcorn and Christmas candy. It’s nothing huge, but it was a big step for me to ask them, and it was such a nice afternoon out with the girls.
Rotary Christmas Party
My host club had its annual Christmas party on December 12th, and it was so wonderful! My host mom, the club president, organized the whole thing. It was quite the elegant affair, and a nice opportunity to talk to people from the club.
RYE Austria hosted a Christmas weekend in Salzburg. We got to see the beautiful city, check out the Christmas Markets, and have a Christmas Dinner all together, where each country presented its traditions. Us Americans sang “Rudi the Red Nose Reindeer”, in honor of our wonderful Country Coordinator, Rudi. The weekend was so lovely, and probably one of my favorite trips.
Last Day of School before Christmas
I started off the day, by exchanging Christmas gifts with my friends. One got me an empty recipe book to fill with all of my favorite Austrian dishes. She wrote in the first one for me, one of my favorite Austrian desserts, Kaiserschmarrn. It was such a thoughtful gift. Being in a Catholic School, Christmas is way more festive here, than back at my public school in Florida. To start, we had a Christmas School Mass. Then, during one of the long, class breaks, my friend Regina took my hand and said “Come with me.” We all rushed to the main hall, where a concert by the music club was put on. They played instruments as we sang along to classic Austrian Christmas Carols. It was so sweet! During all of our other class breaks, we played Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” and sang to the songs at the top of our lungs. This was nothing new though, as we literally did this everyday of December. I think I could go the rest of my life without hearing this two songs… or maybe just until next December. To the end the day, we had our class Secret Santa and Christmas Party. It was such an amazing day, and I loved celebrating my school’s Christmas traditions.
What a magical magical day! I woke up having absolutely no feelings towards it being Christmas, as I didn't feel that rush of knowing there were Christmas presents and filled stockings waiting under the tree for me… that’s because Christmas in Austria is celebrated on the evening of the 24th. I woke up and ate a normal breakfast and my brother opened the last window of the advent calendar and unwrapped the last little sack (it was filled with a chocolate Christkind for each kid). After breakfast I spent the rest of the day in an apartment downstairs with my other siblings baking Christmas cookies with my neighbor. Meanwhile my host parents were preparing the tree and wrapping the presents for all the children. My sisters helped a bit too. The only two people who weren’t allowed any part in the preparations were nay brother and me. This was because my brother still believes in Christkind and because my family wanted me to have an authentic Austrian Christmas as they remember it as children. After baking cookies I hurriedly finished wrapping presents for my family and threw on my dress just as my extended family arrived. The doors to the living room were closed. My family drank cocktails and ate appetizers when all of a sudden a bell was rung… Christkind had arrived! We opened the doors to the biggest and most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever laid eyes on. It was adorned with beautiful traditional ornaments, candles, and sparklers! The top branch reached the roof and was bent over. My host mom does a different themed tree every year, but said that this year she decided to go with traditional Austrian theme for me! I was so enthralled with this tree! We then sang a few songs and wished each other a Frohe Weihnachten. The presents laid in different piles for each kid and adult. After opening all of our gifts we ate a delicious dinner of home made Pumpkin Ravioli, Steaks, Salad, Potatoes, and of course the homemade Christmas cookies. We then spent the rest of the evening talking and enjoying each other’s company. After all the guests left, my host mom, older sister and I rushed to the city for a midnight mass. The music and church were so beautiful! Lots of students have doubts or worries about Christmas on Exchange because they are away from their family and miss out on their traditions back home. For me, it was one of the most magical Christmases I’ve had in a long time. Celebrating new traditions made Christmas feel new and mysterious, as it did for me as a kid. I will never forget the beautiful Christmas I celebrated with my host family!
The Celebration Continues
The next morning after Christmas we all went to my host aunt’s house for brunch. I got to meet a lot of extended Family on her side while eating some very delicious Prosciutto. The day after that I want to my Grandparent’s house for a late lunch. We ate a delicious meal and sang songs. This was really nice, as it extended the Christmas celebration a little longer.
Trip to Weißensee
A few days after Christmas, we headed to Weißensee, a beautiful lake in the mountains. First we stopped at my host-grandma’s house for the night, where we ate a traditional Austrian Christmas dish, Karpfenfisch (a baked fish). The next day we finished our road trip and arrived. The whole week was supposed to be devoted to winter sports: Cross-Country Skiing, Alpine Skiing, Ice-Skating, sledding, and snow-hikes. The forecast showed there to be tons of snow all over Austria… except in Kärnten, the state that we were in. The whole week there was practically no snow. Fortunately, they had the slopes groomed with snow for skiing, and the lake was completely frozen over, so we were still able to get in lots of ice-skating, and lots of skiing. In Austria, Skiing is a national sport. It’s their NFL. I, being from Florida, had practically no skiing experience. So, they enrolled my 7-year old brother and me in Ski-School, where I was surrounded by other young children. We hit those bunny slopes so hard that after three days of skiing, my little brother and I were pros. Ice-Skating, on a frozen lake was a first for me, and such a cool experience! On our first day, we ice skated two loops around the lake, and then skated up to a hut, where we drank warm punch and ate apple strudel. In the afternoon, we went on a hike. The next day my brother and I went to ski school in the morning, while my sisters skied, and in the afternoon we went hiking again. The rest of the week continued in that fashion, of hiking, skiing, and skating. Learning to ski, in a different language, and having no trouble understanding felt so gratifying! Not many can say they learned Alpine Skiing in the actual alps! I learned the terms for the technique in its original language. How cool is that? It was an amazing week filled with lots of activity and lots of delicious, Austrian food. Spending so much quality time with my family, doing the things they love, I definitely bonded with them. It was also so nice, because of how well my German is coming along. I had no problem knowing up with their jokes and stories and being able to make witty replies. I really feel apart of the family! I am so grateful to be in their household, and to experience Austria through their eyes.
Back to School
Initially I was hit with brick wall that going back to school always brings, but I soon got over it and got right back into the flow of thing. Since being back in these two weeks, I have survived one pop quiz, two final tests, and done three presentations, each in three different languages (Spanish, English, and German)! I’m also spending a lot of my time after school prepping for the Ball I open in just two weeks! Things are kind of crazy right now, but I’m glad. Being so busy is really helping me with homesickness, and forcing me to be more involved in the community. I have to go do my German Homework, so bis später Leute!
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