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Christmas in Tirol

Updated on 18.12.2023 in Arts & Culture

Adventmarkt Seefeld, Christbaumschmuck

Each of us has a handful of great Christmas memories as a child: the sparkling star on top of the Christmas tree; the fun afternoons we spent out with our fathers, as the Christkind had to put up the tree at home; the favourite Christmas carol; the air effervescent with scents of the season …

Atmospheric Wind Ensemble Playing

All over the world, Christmas celebrations reflect local culture and traditions. The festivities can be startlingly different from country to country, and from family to family, focusing on different aspects of the nativity story. Christmas traditions even vary greatly from village to village. My fondest childhood memory, for example, is the wind ensemble that went from house to house in our village at twilight, performing Christmas songs in the snowfall with great feeling. When we Tiroleans recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest, gentlest and quietest things give off the greatest glow of happiness. Christmas has always been an important festivity in Tirol, but never a noisy one. That is probably true for most of us — and the reason why many families across the country still celebrate an old-fashioned Christmas on December 24.

Christmas In Miniature: Nativity Scenes

Some Christmas traditions are the same everywhere, like the main staples of decorating the home and putting up the tree. In Tirol, the latter usually happens in the afternoon of December 24. The tree is decorated either in “modern-style” or old-fashioned with self-made tied straw stars, golden nuts and apples. However, one of the oldest and most beloved Christmas traditions in many Tirolese homes is the depiction of the Nativity Scene. They are erected indoors on December 24, and are composed of elaborately hand carved figurines depicting Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus resting in a manger, ox and donkey, shepherds, sheep, angels, and the star. The Magi and camels are depicted in the scene on January 6. Some villages offer crèche tours, where visitors walk from house to house to admire the beautiful and elaborate crèches installed at the homes.

Old and New Traditions: The Nights of Smoke and The Light of Peace

The first of three „Rauchnächte“ (Nights of Smoke) is Christmas Eve, December 24 (the second and third one are New Year’s Eve and the night before Epiphany, January 05). These nights play an important role in Tirolean folk customs. Incense and blessed catkins and herbs are burnt in homes and stables to avert bad fortune. Everything that happens in these nights is considered of great significance. A new tradition, initiated by Austrian Broadcasting Company ORF in 1986, is the distribution of the „Light of Peace from Bethlehem“ throughout Austria on December 24.

© Tirol Werbung - Lisa Hörterer ©

Tirol Christmas Carols: With a “Few Drops of Schnapps”

As said before, the festivities differ from family to family, especially when it comes to chronological order—is it about eating first and unwrapping gifts afterwards or is it just the other way round? What all families have in common, however, is the singing of carols under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, from classics like “Silent Night, Holy Night” to traditional Tirolean songs like “Gott griaß enk Leitln”. This one ends with the request for a “few drops of schnapps – to warm up in those cold Tirolean nights of winter.

The Christmas Feast: Noodle Soup and Fried Yeast Dough Pastry

Kiachl beim Adventmarkt Seefeld

Christmas is all about food, and in Tirol, the feast served on Christmas Eve is not goose, turkey or carp. Instead, it is a hearty beef broth with noodles and “Frankfurter Würstchen” – thin parboiled sausages made of pure pork. In some areas of Tirol it is common to serve a traditional fried yeast dough pastry, similar to the more famous “Kiachl”. A real Tirol staple, these are fried in boiling lard and either eaten sweet with cranberry jam or poppy seed sauce or savoury with sauerkraut.

Going to Midnight Mass

© Tirol Werbung - Klaus Kranebitter ©

Once replete and replenished, Roman Catholics in Tirol traditionally celebrate Midnight Mass, which begins either at or sometime before midnight on Christmas Eve. This festive ceremony celebrates the birth of Christ, which is believed to have occurred at night. Afterwards, it’s time for a chat with neighbours and friends. Christmas Eve draws to a close, with the excitement at the prospect of more holidays to come.

Esther Pirchner is a cultural journalist finding out what's trending in music and culture in Tirol's most popular destinations.

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