Traditional Christmas Greeting: " Fröhliche Weinachten"

In Austria, the first holiday decorations appear four Sundays before Christmas with the beginning of Advent, the season that reminds people that Christmas is approaching. Advent wreaths, circles of fir or spruce that feature four red candles, are hung from the ceiling and lit progressively on the four Sundays before Christmas. Nativity scenes, curiously lacking the baby Jesus until Christmas Eve, are also traditional for Austrian families as Christmas approaches. Many were hand carved by members of the family and are passed down from generation to generation.

Santa Claus does not visit Austria each year, though three other holiday figures, Krampus, Saint Nicholas and the Christkindl, do on their own special days. Krampus, an evil spirit with frightening fur, visits each town on December 5th to warn naughty children to behave. Though he's poked with sticks and hit with snowballs as payment for his advice, his warning must have been heeded, since St. Nicholas can only find good children to reward when he visits on December 6th. In Austria, St. Nicholas appears wearing the white flowing robe and pointed headdress worn traditionally by Catholic bishops. When children promise good behavior he distributes oranges nuts and sweets. The star of the Christmas and Advent season is the Christkindl, a winged baby symbolizing Christ who brings gifts and decorates the Christmas tree. Children are not allowed to see the Christmas tree until a tinkling bell summons them to the Christmas room and they witness the work of the Christkindl and his band of angels. The tree is often adorned with fruits, nuts, and glass ornaments. Many families treasure handcrafted fruit carved to resemble the nativity scene. Presents are exchanged after the family has sung Christmas carols, traditionally beginning with "Silent Night."

"Silent Night" was created in Austria in 1818 in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf by Pastor Joseph Mohr and Organist Franz Gruber. Gruber and Mohr discovered that mice damage part of the organ used for Christmas hymns just hours before the Christmas Eve service. Gruber wrote a simple melody for the guitar, and he and Mohr were inspired by the tranquility of the evening and a young mother in the back of the church to add the words "Silent Nigh, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin Mother and Child, holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace." Today, Silent Night is sung in almost every language. In Austria, it is not heard on the radio until Christmas, when the peaceful melody is repeated every hour.

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