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Memories from our Grandmothers

austrian-tree

The Magic of Christmas through the  Filter of Childhoodby Berni

I am Austrian by background.  My most magical memory is Christmas at my Grandmother’s (actually it was my Grandparent’s house – however, it is Grandmother’s that add the special ingredients) house in a small village in Upper Austria.  Christmas, like in many predominantly Catholic countries, is full of traditions; in this case it is small village traditions that have been passed down through generations.

There is no Santa Claus in Austria that brings the gifts like in the US. The concept of Santa is in the form of St. Nicholas who comes on December 6 and fills your shoes with goodies, or a switch made from branches tied together with a red ribbon from Grampus, the devil, to remind you bit to naughty.

In Austria Christmas is celebrated Christmas Eve, typically before going to Midnight Mass. As children we never saw the Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. Folklore has it that the presents are brought by the Christ Child and the Angels. Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother and father were in the living room, separated by a door from the kitchen where I played with my grandfather and mother. They were busy; putting up a fresh tree;. clipping on candleholders on the branches; placing candles made of beeswax into the silver holders made of tin; hanging ornaments which were gingerbread men, pinecones, apples, and walnuts suspended by ribbons, stars and snowflakes made from straw, and sparklers hanging like icicles from the tree branches. They placed gifts under the tree wrapped in ornate tissue paper, tied together with ribbons, with usually a spring of Juniper tucked under the bow that smelled like Christmas in my memories. When all was in place they would light the candles on the tree which made the room be filled with the subtle smell of honey from the beeswax mixed with pine, spices from the gingerbread men, and apples as little flames warmed up the branches.

When everything was in place, my grandmother would open the windows to the outside and ring a little bell. When I heard the sound of the bell, I knew that the Christ child had just left with the Angels. As I opened the door to the living room, my grandmother and father would light the sparklers that were hanging like icicles. It was truly magical as the whole Christmas tree was enshrouded in falling blue stars.

The year that this memory belongs to was when I got a muff for Christmas. It was my favorite gift because they kept my little hands warm against the bitter cold outside. My most treasured memory was walking to the church, which was at the center of the village, to go to Midnight Mass with my grandparents, and parents, and having my hands be toasty warm in my new muff.  It seemed like the most special Midnight Mass ever because I had a muff, which I believe my Grandmother made.