Last year this time, the Vienna Blog team was doing sweet, savoury and boozy tastings in the Viennese Christmas markets, looking to recommend to you the best edibles to sample. The markets may be cancelled, but our holiday spirit is very much intact and we hope it to be, to lend a term of our times, contagious.
Due to the challenging times we are all facing in the wake of the pandemic and with all the restrictions in place, most of us will be spending the holiday seasons inside the home, whiling away the days to 2021 – to which, I believe it is fair to say, all of us look forward to – with work, household chores, spending time with family and engaging with friends and other dear ones within reason or simply online. The fatigue of the pandemic could well have set in, but it need not dampen our spirit or stifle the joy and magic of the holiday season.
In case our readers are at a loss for inspiration as to what could bring good cheer at a time like this, we have prepared a list of ways in which you can get into the Christmas spirit in 2020. The best part about this list is that you need not leave your home.
We made this top ten particularly special, see if the headings sound familiar. Ring any (silver) bells?
Without further ado, here are our top 10 ways to get into the Christmas holiday spirit at home.
Deck the halls with boughs of holy…
Or so the carol goes, inviting us to create an atmosphere of celebration through the seasonal decorations. This is what we invite you to do: take out those Christmas decorations earlier than you normally would and surround yourself already with the warm and festive décor.
While the city council has announced (text in German) that the overall sale of freshly felled Christmas trees will be available Vienna-wide as of 12 December from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., you can still choose to get a potted Christmas tree or even an artificial one in the meantime. The advantage in ordering an artificial one, if you don’t own one already, is that for the price of a fresh tree, you get to keep it and use it for many years to come. You need not worry about needles all over the floor, nor about the inconvenience of disposing of it in a collection place far from your household. It can be deposited anywhere in your home, ready to be used the next year. The only downside is that you won’t get to enjoy that fresh scent of the pine branches. The main takeaway here is that if you have an artificial one, we suggest you take it out a bit earlier and to decorate it either by yourself or with your family, take your time, have a smile on your face and decorate the most beautiful Christmas tree you’ve ever decorated.
Why stop at the Christmas tree? There is a host of beautiful Christmas decorations that would adorn any household and usher in that uncanny warmth of the holiday spirit. Just for inspiration, you can try whatever is in your budget range and what you consider would fit well into the overall aesthetics of your home, so here are some of the items you may wish to consider:
- Nativity scene – miniature or taking up your entire patio, modern or traditionally handcrafted, nativity scenes are definitely a staple for households where Christmas is ‘seriously’ celebrated.
- Advent wreath – or Adventkranz as it is called locally is an evergreen wreath (usually pine branches) with four candles, each standing for the weeks of Advent of the liturgical calendar, which are lit on the Sundays of the Advent. These are extremely popular in Austria, so you would be able to find them even in supermarkets. Similar wraths without the candles can be used to adorn your entrance door or house gate.
- Christmas potpourri – think cinnamon sticks, pinecones, dried oranges, star anise, all either available in stores already put together or you can try your hand at your very own potpourri pot or jar, maybe you will even gift it to a loved one. Check out this article for directions on how to make some.
- Poinsettia – or Weihnachtsstern is a potted plant with star-shaped bright red leaves, which you can find now in virtually all markets.
- Fun miniature figurines – Santa Claus, snowmen, elves, reindeers, which you can either use indoors or outdoors (patio, balcony).
- Lights – whether it’s the warm or multi-coloured Christmas lights on your tree or the icy ones for the windows, there is something distinctly Christmassy about the illumination, especially if it comes in the shape of a star or tree.
- Stockings and hats – best hung by the fireplace, if you have one.
- Lanterns – some lanterns actually will have beautifully carved figures inside and there are some very nice ones available that are backlit, creating a warm backdrop for whatever scene or character is carved inside. Otherwise a classic lantern that you can place candles in would also be a beautiful addition to your decorations.
- Snow globes – also a beautiful and appropriate gift, snow globes bring images of Santa Claus in the snow, on his way to deliver you presents or conjures up images of sleepy cities and villages in the snow, all in tune with the current atmosphere.
Alternatively, you can make your own decorations from beautiful garlands, baubles, fir branches and all the other items listed above or you can use these items for placement around the house, such as by the Christmas tree, on your window sills or on your dining table.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
To the rock’n’roll tunes of this modern carol, we propose our next way to get into the Christmas spirit: virtual Christmas parties either with office mates or with friends. ‘Virtual office Christmas party, what’s the point?’ you may scoff. How about the best thing? You get to drink that mulled wine because you’re not driving anywhere, you can have your favourite drink and snack or none, because there will be insignificant or no peer pressure in this setting, you need not worry about embarrassing pictures (unless you take them yourself) and you can invite whomever you want or stay online as long as you please – you need not feel obligated, because some manager is there. If some people can’t make it, that’s okay, there is an opportunity to go online the second day. The point is to connect with those colleagues who make your work life pleasant, who you are grateful to have in your life or, simply, who put a smile on your face just by being themselves… and to raise a glass, have a laugh, catch up, whine about the lockdown together. Or perhaps you are the manager of a small team and you would like to thank your team informally for pulling through this difficult year – why not hold a virtual party? Depending on your level of familiarity, you can play party games, such as trivia or word games. Want to make sure everyone is in? Offer a voucher to the winner, a voucher good for online shopping, that is. And remember… enjoy, smile and be merry ☺!
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
The moment the Advent calendars started filling out the shelves in shops and supermarkets, you knew it was officially the start of the holiday season. Some of our readers new to this tradition or outside of Austria might be unfamiliar with it. An Advent calendar is usually a cardboard box shaped like a rectangle containing poke-through ‘windows’ marked with numbers standing for the dates in December from the first to the 25th. Calendar windows open to reveal an image, a portion of a story and a small gift. The calendar is an ideal gift for anyone, depending on their preferences. Companies take this opportunity to add tester-sized products in the calendar, so it’s not just sweets, although that is the most popular and most ubiquitous type of calendar. A few years ago, a friend mentioned how at a small office Christmas party, 25 trivia questions were played for each gift in the window of the Advent calendar of a famous skincare brand. While this would be inadvisable to do now, having your own calendar at home would be a fun way to count down the days to Christmas. Children would especially be happy about one with toys or sweets, while adults would probably appreciate practical gifts, such as coffee, grooming and beauty products, nostalgia or collectors’ items.
A more traditional approach to the countdown involves the Advent wreath. Each Sunday preceding Christmas a candle is lit. While nowadays, they can be found in all colors, typically all red or white, there is a colour scheme that perhaps has puzzled some of our readers. The first one symbolizes hope and usually comes in purple, while the second symbolizes love and is also purple. The third one is pink or rose and stands for joy, the fourth symbolizes peace and is also purple. Sometimes there would be a fifth white one in the middle called the Christ candle and is lit on Christmas day, symbolizing to Christians the light Jesus Christ brings to the world. If you wish to connect to the religious aspect of the holidays, light the Advent candles and say a prayer.
Almost three weeks before Christmas day, we get our boots clean and get ready for… Saint Nicholas, you guessed it. Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated in most European countries on 6 December of every year. In Austria, children are encouraged to put their clean boots outside the front door or in the foyer. Saint Nicholas is said to visit all children and check if they were good or naughty all year round. If they were good, he leaves in their boots small gifts and sweets. If they were naughty however, they get either a stick or a punishment from the Krampus, a devilish-looking figure that trails behind St. Nicholas and its mere sight is punishment enough, as it can scare the daylights out of adults, let alone children. We hope that our readers’ children will be visited by St. Nicholas and receive the loveliest of gifts, setting the atmosphere of joy and gift-giving for the weeks leading up to Christmas.
What about yourself? Have you been kind or a bit on the naughty side this year? If your seven-year old self was to accompany St. Nicholas, would they choose goodies or the stick for you? No judgment here, just an exercise in self-reflection. If you past your inner child’s test, give your winter boots a good cleaning and leave in them a small gift for yourself. Or if you have a partner, have them do this with you. Allow yourself to be playful and childish, enjoy the holidays as you did when you were little.
A Marshmallow World…
And what is marshmallow best paired with? Thick, smooth, hot chocolate. Since finding the best hot chocolate in Vienna at the moment seems counterintuitive, we have even a better suggestion: try making your own. Here is a recipe for a thick Italian-style chocolate. Let us know if you try it and how it turns out. Of course, you can make this vegan or keto, depending on your preferences and needs. And naturally, add some yummy marshmallows!
The holiday season beverages come with a license to feel nostalgic, to enjoy the sweetness, and to not count the calories until next year… It’s all about comfort and feeling warm on the inside. So naturally, the holiday season in Austria cannot be without Punsch (punch) and Glühwein (mulled wine).
To inspire you right away or just ahead of your shopping, we would like to propose a recipe (original in German) for Orangenpunsch (orange punch), which you can prepare to get into the holiday spirit – and, who knows, maybe have again for Christmas:
You will need:
9 Oranges * 2 Lemons * 1 Cinnamon stick *
60 ml Rum * 4 Cloves * 80 gr. Brown sugar *
300 ml Water * 500 ml White wine
To prepare the punch, start by squeezing the juice from the oranges and lemons. Then take a pot, add the water, white wine and juice from the oranges and lemons and heat up the liquid. After about 5 minutes, add the cloves, the cinnamon stick, the sugar and the rum. Let it brew for about half an hour, then remove it from the stove top, sieve out the content into another pot and add it back to the heat for a few minutes. After this, it’s ready to serve in cups, glasses or mugs of your choice, ready to enjoy with or without the garnish (orange slices would do just fine here).
In case you choose to play around with the punch recipes, here are our 3 bonus tips to ensure your punch will be delicious and better than anything you ever had at the Christmas markets.
- Remove any solid spices, like cinnamon sticks, star anise or cloves if you plan to keep the punch heated, otherwise they will start diffusing bitterness into the drink. To keep track of the spices easier, we suggest you put them in a disposable tea bag.
- Heat the drink over low heat for a longer time, if you have a thermometer, try to keep the beverage under 60 degrees, otherwise the alcohol will start to evaporate.
- Ensure you use good-quality wine and fruits, especially if you use the skins of fruits – they should ideally be bio, so no treated with any chemicals.
Enjoy these wonderful beverages, let us know which ones you eagerly tried out!
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
He’s making a list, checking it twice… Well, that is the monumental task of Santa Claus (Weihnachtsmann), but you can follow his example and make your very own list of people you would like to give a present to or a simple card for Christmas. This is the perfect opportunity to consider what your loved ones would appreciate receiving or what you know they would enjoy but would not normally buy for themselves. Or to offer a small token of your appreciation to others who made this year special for you – for all the good reasons. Or at the very least Christmas greetings to let acquaintances and colleagues know you are thinking of them this holiday season.
Creating your Christmas gift list timely is not only a great way to ensure nobody is left out, but it can be used to budget the costs of the gifts, as well as your time, especially if you opt for a special DIY gift, depending on your particular craft and talent. A DIY gift is something you can make yourself with a few items. It can be something simple, such as a potpourri jar, a hot chocolate mix, cookies in a box, fun tree decorations, or a bit more complex such as knitted items like mittens or socks, paintings or drawings, jewellery or sculptures – wherever your artistic inspiration and talents take you. Finally, consider the gift wrapping or gift bags for the items you will hand directly, remember to remove any price tags and to make sure your loved one’s name matches the content of the gift. If the gifts are taken care of, consider sending Christmas cards by post with a personalized message to those whose home address you know. Otherwise, create that mailing list and prepare the most amazing and visually stunning virtual holiday greetings card you have ever designed in your life. Lastly, it is a pleasant way to pass the time and count down the days until Christmas.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
With a melancholic tune, we wind down quietly into a different facet of gift-giving that most of us feel glad to take part in as the holidays roll in, charity. This year was extremely difficult for all of us, no less for the ones who had lost their jobs and for the groups that were already in more than unfortunate circumstances. We take this moment to be grateful for what we have and to try to offer even a little bit to those in need.
We encourage our readers to consider charity from all perspectives, not necessarily with financial implications, but also acts of kindness towards family, friends or even complete strangers. If you have felt inspired to help those in need, but were unsure how to go about it, consider the old saying ‘charity begins at home’. Ask yourself if there are any loved ones or neighbours in need of any assistance. Then, within your means, what is it that you could do in that moment to help? Is it running an errand for the elderly? Is it settling a groceries bill or purchasing medication for those who have fallen on hard times? Preparing food for someone disabled? Looking after children, while their parents are at work? Putting up a disguise as St. Nicholas and bringing gifts? It can be anything, as long as you feel from your heart that you want to do something to help another.
If you wish to consider supporting the extended community, you can do so by donating items you no longer need, but are in good condition, such as clothes, toys, or furniture. Alternatively, you can purchase household, hygiene and non-perishable items that can be collected by NGOs or church charities for distribution to those in need in various shelters. Or, the simplest – to transfer a sum that you deem most appropriate for the charity or the cause that speaks to your soul most. The important thing is to do is to get involved if you feel called to do so.
12 Days of Christmas
We have told you about the significance of the Advent wreath and celebrating St. Nicholas Day. Have you ever heard of St. Barbara’s Day and the Smoking Nights of Christmas? No, the latter does not mean the smoking ban is lifted (sorry, smokers). There are some local traditions, some very old, some more current, and all good fun, that you should know about.
Barbara twigs. In honour of the remembrance day of St. Barbara on 4 December, according to a very old custom, branches of fruit trees (chestnut, cherry, apple, birch, plum, elder and more, depending on the region) are cut, then placed in vases around the house. If the branches bloom before Christmas Eve, they are said to bring good luck in the coming year.
Twelve Nights/Smoking nights (Rauchnächte). The period from the winter solstice on 21 December to the Epiphany on 6 January is referred to as the Rauhnächte, roughly the equivalent of the twelve days of Christmas of the English-speaking world, which start on Christmas Day through the Epiphany. It is on the important days of the Twelve Nights (Thomas Night, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Epiphany Eve) that custom would have followers of this tradition cleansing the home with smoke from the embers of consecrated wood and herbs from Easter and incense. This smoke cleansing is performed to receive blessings and protection, and to ward off evil spirits.
Christ child (Christkind). In Austria, on Christmas Eve, it is not Santa Claus or Father Christmas delivering presents, but the Christkind, who is said to deliver presents to children all over the world. He is often depicted as a child with golden locks, wings and a halo. Families sometimes leave the windows open to welcome Christkind in the home. Children are tipped off by the sound of a bell ringing that they may go into the room and find their presents.
Christmas cookies. Austrians do love their cookies and pastries – it has to be stated in case the bakery at every corner did not tip you off to that already. It should come as no surprise that one of the sweetest traditions gains in popularity around the start of holiday season. What better way to spend an afternoon than by baking Vanillekipferl, Spitzbuben or Lebkuchen ahead of Christmas? Not to mention what a delightful and welcome gift it would be.
White Christmas – your favourite Christmas or holiday-themed movies
Not only a Christmas carol, but an eponymous film. Possibly the most homebound and relaxing activity on this list is to soak up the holiday spirit through your television screen, watching or binging on your favourite Christmas or holiday-themed movies. Which ones were your favourites growing up, that you were eagerly checking in the TV guide to make sure you didn’t miss them? Where can you stream your favourites now? How about creating a watchlist? This way, every night in December can be ‘Holiday Movie Night’. What do you think of this challenge – a sort of film advent calendar? Can our readers think of about 25 holiday-themed movies or TV series Christmas specials they would love to watch?
If you have not drawn up your watchlist of favourites, you don’t have Christmas favourites, or you find holiday-themed movies a novelty, here are some of our suggestions:
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – this ultimate Christmas classic can be streamed on Amazon Prime by subscribers
Miracle on 34th Street (1947 original, 1994 remake) – both the original and remake can be streamed by Disney+ subscribers
Home Alone (1991) – a favourite among Eastern European millennials available for streaming on Disney+ to subscribers
Last Holiday (2006) – a heart-warming romcom available for streaming on Amazon Prime for subscribers
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – the live-action retelling of the Dr. Seuss story is available to stream on Netflix to subscribers
Love Actually (2003) – beloved British Christmas comedy available to stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime to subscribers
A Christmas Carol (1984) – a well-known retelling of the Charles Dickens story, available on Netflix and Disney+ to subscribers
Die Hard (1988) – probably one of your dad’s favourites, this action movie is available for streaming on Netflix to subscribers
The list could go on and there are many films that could be added here, so we ask our readers: which holiday-themed film fills you with nostalgia and gets you into the holiday spirit? What film would you say is a Christmas classic or staple when you were growing up or in your home country? Let us know in the comments.
Bonus tip: Check with your favourite streaming service about the possibility to create a watch party and watch your favourites with your friends from the comfort of your own living rooms. This feature is available to Amazon Prime subscribers for all the videos available on the platform. Once the ‘watch party’ tab is selected, you create a name and send an invitation with the link to the friends you wish to invite to watch with you. During the video, a chat is open to all participants in the watch party, which can mean anything from annoying comments from that friend who never shuts up in the cinema during films to fun facts or trivia about whatever you are watching. A similar service can be found on the streaming platform Netflix.
The all too familiar tunes of the holidays slowly creep into video ads, then on the radio, then as suggestions in your music streaming apps, until finally they are everywhere in the shops and in the streets. These are your typical winter songs, Christmas music from all decades in the last century, and, of course, carols – traditional and modern alike. So depending on your taste, you are bound to find holiday music you would enjoy. Yours truly prefers Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin singing Christmas songs to set an atmosphere of tranquillity and nostalgia. But if Jingle Bell Rock or All I Want for Christmas are more of your thing, turn those tunes up while doing your housework, cooking or even during home office if it helps you focus.
Not certain what kind of music would invite the holiday atmosphere in your home? Start with our special tip: all the headings titles used in this article are actually Christmas songs. Look them up and give them a few minutes of your time, see if they inspire you to listen to more or to have them in the background as you decorate your home or make that delicious hot chocolate.
Naturally, with all the current measures in place, carolling door to door would not be recommended, to the dread of some and joy of the others. So, if you enjoy singing carols, film yourself singing and turn it into a Christmas (audio) card, which can be shared on your social media or with your friends.
As a conclusion to our article, we take this opportunity to thank our readers and sponsors for their continued support of this blog, and wish you happy holidays in 2020! We wish you a time filled with peace, joy and abundance, and, naturally, we wish you good health and great times ahead.