English Girl in Vienna

Cultural Commentator

Archive for the category “Festivals”

Autumn has Come to Vienna

Happy pumpkins make the best pumpkin soup

Happy pumpkins make the best pumpkin soup

 

Autumn is a lovely time in Vienna and is characterised by three things; pumpkins, chestnuts and booze.

Pumpkins are everywhere: supermarkets are filled with turnips, squash and gourds of all shapes and sizes; pumpkins are used as decoration all around shopping centres and in people’s homes and not just as a nod to Halloween, but in celebration of the season in its own right. Pumpkin soups, salads and ravioli appear on every restaurant menu. I even went to a festival dedicated to the celebration of pumpkin-time and got to sample pumpkin punch and pumpkin beer.

Autumny decorations for sale

Autumny decorations for sale

Brass accompaniment for  the pumpkins

Brass accompaniment for the pumpkins at the festival

Pumpkin display at the festival on the hill at Am Himmel

Pumpkin display at the festival on the hill at Am Himmel

Horse chestnuts, having fallen from the trees can be seen rolling around pavements, but sadly, children here don’t play conkers as the game is unknown. Roasted chestnuts, called Maroni, are available on most street corners and always make me think of a Dickensian winter scene.

And finally, the booze part. Autumn is the time when Sturm is available. Sturm is wine in its very earliest form, basically fermented grape juice. It is cloudy and, due to its juice-like taste, can be very potent as it is tempting to knock it back much quicker than you would a glass of wine. Locals warn you to only have one or two glasses because for many it can be sturmisch (stormy) for the stomach and be an inducer of diarrhoea. Stalls pop up all over the city centre offering red and white varieties.

Boozey grape juice straight from the barrel at a pop-up stall in the city centre

Boozey grape juice straight from the barrel at a pop-up stall in the city centre

So, enjoy the orangey pumpkin glow of autumn before winter and the Christmas markets are upon us, but please be careful; for while it is tempting to jump into a big pile of golden autumn leaves and crunch your way through them, remember that this is Vienna and there may be a big pile of dog poo lurking beneath the surface.

We Three Kings

Today, on the 7th January, most Viennese went back to work and all the kids went back to school. Why so late, why not on the 6th, like in the UK? The answer is because the 6th of January, which we know as Epiphany, is Three Kings’ Day here and it is a religious public holiday.

The three kings can actually be seen walking around the city, taking the form of children dressed up as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar bestowing good luck on houses whose occupants open their front doors when they hear the singing three kings. The kings bless the house and in chalk write 20+C+M+B+14 over the door frame (the year 2014, with the initials of the kings in between). This is just one of the differences hiding amidst the many similarities we share in the ways we celebrate at Christmas time.

Let’s start with the Christmas tree, which I prefer to put up as early in December as I can. The earliest I have managed to buy a tree here is 9th December and I put it up straight away to enjoy it for as long as possible. This, according to the locals is far too early and unusual behaviour. Trees, if they are bought a couple of weeks before Christmas, are often stored out in the cold on balconies, still all wrapped up, ready for the big reveal on the 24th.

Christmas Eve, which for me from my cultural background is treated as the long day of anticipation before the big day, is the day on which Christmas is celebrated in Austria. Although shops are open in the morning, most places close around 2pm. The day time is a busy and buzzing time with lots of people out and about working, buying last minute things, or grabbing a lunch time drink with friends. Then, in the afternoon, those with children go on a small outing; the purpose of which is solely to get the children out of the house so that the parent who remains can put up and decorate the Christmas tree in record time as well as laying out all the presents. The children are brought home a few hours later by the other parent, or the helpful grandparents, and the kids return home to a wondrously festive front room and dive into their presents, which were brought not by Santa, but by the Christkind (meaning ‘Christ Child’ in English). The image of the Christkind is that of a teenage child, usually a girl with long blond hair, radiating goodness and looking suitably angelic in a flowing white gown; not your average fat Santa that’s for sure!

17 year old Valerie beat the competition to be 2013's Christkind

17 year old Valerie beat the competition to be 2013’s Christkind

Questions surrounding the Christkind usually occur around the same time that children who are used to another more fatherly-looking type of present deliverer start to come up. Kids start to notice that they never get to see the Christkind and realise the strange coincidence that Mum or Dad is never with them when they go out and the Christkind comes to their house.

The image of Santa, or Father Christmas is present but he is called the Wiehnachtsmann (Christmas Man), and is used in many advertising campaigns and is more linked to German traditions. The familiar image of Saint Nic goes by another name, that of Nikolo or Nikolaus, and he comes to visit children much earlier, on 6th December. The familiar concept of naughty and nice children deserving or being undeserving of presents applies to this date. Naughty children can expect to be visited by Krampus, which is a scary looking devil type creature who comes with long branches ready to hit the naughty children with. Such unlucky children can only hope to be given a lump of coal. However, on the next day, good children are rewarded by Nikolo who treats them to nuts, tangerines and chocolates. There were lots of such treats going around the school I teach in on this day and it reminded me of how as a child as well as my small Christmas gifts, I would always be given a couple of tangerines in my stocking.

Motivation to give up your naughty ways

Motivation to give up your naughty ways – meet Krampus

Amidst the differences, it was nice to discover that everybody loves a good Christmas song, and as my classes sang along to Last Christmas it showed that, whatever the traditions, everyone loves singing along to Wham.

http://www.heute.at/news/oesterreich/wien/art23652,955857

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2013/dec/17/krampus-evil-santa-germany-pagan-demon

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I know this is horribly overdue as an entry about Christmas and New Year, but there are so many lovely photos to share, that talk about Christmas I must.

Christmas in Vienna and the run up to it is truly magical. The centre of the city is tastefully decorated in the most splendid of twinkly lights and people bundle up, ready to spend most of their time outdoors despite the winter temperatures. Vienna is a very outdoor-sy city and the winter is no exception. You can’t move for Christmas markets that cater to your every Christmas gift need, and stands selling roasted chestnuts and hot cups of punch spring up on every pavement, there to provide residents and visitors with warm food and warm alcohol. What I love is that, although the place is overrun with tourists, the markets are enjoyed by everyone who lives here. It is not uncommon for friends to meet each other after work at a market to enjoy a Gluehwein and families meet up at weekends to wander round and look at the stalls, enjoy the brass bands and generally soak up the jovial atmosphere.

The twinkly chandeliers in the mains street called Graben, note the punsch stands

The twinkly chandeliers in the main street called Graben, note the punsch stands

Belvedere Christmas market

Belvedere Christmas market

Can you see the brass band?

Can you see the brass band?

Little greenhouses appear at the Museums Quarter, so you can get inside and have a drink

Little greenhouses appear at the Museums Quarter, so you can get inside and have a drink

The lighting of the Christmas tree at the Rathaus

The lighting of the Christmas tree at the Rathaus

Most markets close on 23rd December and the biggest one, at the Rathaus, closes on Christmas Eve. There is one, however, that opens on Christmas Day itself and for the past two years I have gone on Christmas morning, pre-Christmas lunch to the Schoenbrunn for a final mooch around. I’m not the only one; it is always busy with shoppers, tourists and Gluehwein guzzlers and is one of the nicest ways I can think of to spend a couple of hours on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day at Schoenbrunn Palace

Christmas Day at Schoenbrunn Palace

Although the Christmas markets disappear quite abruptly, their void is filled soon after by the New Year stalls that help revellers see in the New Year. They mostly sell, food, alcohol, cold alcohol, hot alcohol and more food, but there is a great number dedicated to the selling of lucky charms. You can buy fluffy pigs, pig ornaments, pig stickers, tiny pig figures, pigs of every description, some of them even dressed as chimney sweeps or holding four-leaf clovers. I asked my students about the relevance of the pigs and they apparently signify prosperity because, in the olden days, if you had a pig at the start of the year, it was a sure sign that your household would not go hungry.

I went to the city centre on Silvester, which is New Year’s Eve. I went in the afternoon and the place was heaving with people already in the party spirit. The atmosphere was much more boisterous than it ever was over Christmas, with people chugging down a few Jaegermeisters with every Gluehwein. It seemed like the whole city was on a mission to get drunk. I left before darkness fell, mostly because I had been warned by people who have been here a long time that the crowds in the city get unbearable in the night time and it becomes every claustrophobic’s nightmare. Apparently the general din is so loud that you can’t even hear the bells of St. Stephan’s Cathedral chime in the New Year, even though the party takes place literally outside it. The whole city also becomes obsessed with fireworks and from about 8pm onwards anyone can look out of their apartment window and see a fireworks display from a number of locations; it naturally reaches its crescendo at midnight and the sky glows pink and yellow and the sounds of explosions can be deafening.

A sunny New Year's Eve afternoon

A sunny New Year’s Eve afternoon

Turbo Gluehwein

Turbo Gluehwein

Pigs and chimney sweeps galore

Pigs and chimney sweeps galore

On New Year’s Day debris littered the whole city. We went for a bracing walk up to Kahlenberg, one of the hills in the woods that overlooks the city, and it was apparent that it had been one of the places to be the night before. It also seemed, from the number of empty bottles, that everyone had been on the sparking wine. The fog hung low and freezing and the city was eerily quiet because everyone must have been in bed sleeping off the excesses of the night before, but Vienna being Vienna, we still found a place to have an outdoor drink on such a biting winter’s day. We found a tiny open-air Heurige (wine tavern) open for business. The tall round table at which we stood had a layer of frost on it, but they were serving hot booze and sausages and had a fire lit to keep us toasty. Every passer by who stopped for a New Year’s drink was given a lucky charm, a little pig, to see in the New Year and I thought how glad I was to be in Vienna for the start of 2013.

The staff braving the cold

The staff braving the cold at the Heurige we found

Good luck charms with every drink

Good luck charms with every drink

Frosty vineyards for a New Year's drink

Frosty vineyards for a New Year’s drink – perfect with the fire

Any Excuse to Have a Drink and Dress Up

It has been obviously apparent since arriving here that the locals love nothing better than to have a drink and they need little persuasion to do so. Rarely can you walk through town without their being some kind of festival on, and with a festival comes the wine, the beer, the bread and ham and the Lederhosen.

A few weeks ago there was a festival to celebrate Styria, a region known as The Green Heart of Austria and all the Styrian natives living in Vienna were out in style, as was the rest of the city. There were bands and dances and displays of virile young men chopping logs in time with the music. The display included time for them to stop and swig wine from the bottle before continuing with the ritual. I desperately snapped a few pictures of them in their Lederhosen, but I had ample opportunity to photograph people in traditional dress because it wasn’t just those performing or staffing stalls wearing it, lots of people were. There were some magnificent feathered hats and also lots of women in the traditional Dirndl dress: whenever they have the chance, they will proudly put it on. Last weekend I went to a vineyard that was having a small gathering to signify the start of the wine tavern open-season and lots of people wandered in in local dress there too. I felt a little jealous that we don’t have a national costume in England. There are obvious iconic images of course, like the Beefeaters, but you wouldn’t go round dressed like one of those, not unless it was a fancy dress party. It struck me that our characteristic unpatriotic-ness means we miss out on something, a chance to bond with others and celebrate in style. I suppose the closest we come is the image of the Union Jack on lots of t-shirts and bags, but I just can’t bring myself to wear it; it seems a bit icky. I get a bit closer to patriotism when it comes to sporting events like football and no doubt, should I find myself in the UK come the Olympics, I will happily drape a flag around my shoulders and go all team GB but that’ll be the extent of it. Until then I’ll be pointing at all the marvellous Lederhosen and Dirndls and joining the locals for a glass of local wine.

Her dress is a Dirndl

Note also the ham, and the wine

Strong Styrian wood cutters

Always an accordian

Marvellous Lederhosen

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