06 January 2012

Christmas in Vienna

With my wool-gloved hands I clutched the steaming mug, fingers warming to the touch while I licked the remnants of my well-spiced apple-cinnamon punch off my lips with an appreciative smile. Instead of traditional snacks such as gingerbread hearts, candied fruit, roasted almonds or Brezel, my aunt and me munched organic corn tacos and mango enchilada from the Mexican deli around the corner.


Huddled in circles around tastefully lit punch stalls, people at the Christmas market discuss their plans for Christmas while those lining the more brightly lit stalls were ooh-ing and aah-ing at the various mostly hand-crafted items on display.

The Christmas market on Spittelberg didn't let us down this year and was as intimate as ever compared to its more commercially laid out counterparts at Rathaus (town hall) or Schönbrunn castle – both locations also highly frequented by tourists. Spittelberg is an artsy quarter behind the Museumsquartier (MQ), the eight-largest cultural complex in the world (60 000 m²), and is locally known for its shops in which artists sell their welded silver cutlery and bronze, silk paintings, mosaic and self-blown glass jewelry.

Nativity scenes and saints carved out of olive wood from Bethlehem

Klimt-inspired glassware

Hand-painted Christmas balls

Spread out on two parallel alleys on Spittelberg, the Christkindlmarkt, named after the Christkind (a mythical figure which brings the presents on Christmas eve in Austria before Coca-Cola allegedly succeeded their invented Santa Claus into saint-like status), is renown for the creativity of its vendors and I think, the most lovely of all Christmas markets in Vienna - and of those, there are plenty: Groups of stalls are spread out across town every 500m, some smaller, some larger.

Organic food gifts are also offered, in this case: Honey and wax candles
I prefer the chilled-out Christmas markets to the crowds of people buying Christmas presents in Vienna's shopping mile, Mariahilfer Straße or the large shopping malls on the outskirts of town and thus probably missed most of the subliminal Christmas prompts. So, with no visual aides to daily remind me of Christmas, no countdown calendar, minimal exposure to Christmas carols (due to refusing to immerse myself in the Christmas shopping craze), no Christmas cards in the post, not watching TV much, no cookie exchanges with the Filipino family which is not the baking type, no skiing or holiday trip abroad, mild temperatures and no snow, Christmas arrived quite suddenly for me. On top of that, it was overshadowed by the negative outcome of an internal job application I was informed of five days before Christmas - merry Christmas to me!

It is not surprising then that on Christmas eve, the desire to have some kind of 'proper' Christmas finally overpowered me. After all, it was my first Christmas in my parents' home in seven or so years and I hadn't set foot in it at all in that time. I literally made the best of what I could find and transformed a handful of green velvet hangers and some trinkets I found at home into a Christmas tree (the star on top was substituted with a yellow tissue paper), a fallen twig from one of the pine trees surrounding our house into a 'Mistletoe' and a cornflakes box and other empty gift-wrapped containers into fake presents for decoration. I made up for the usual joy of arts & crafts in the run-up to Christmas by doing some origami and teaching my aunt and my mother how to fold a crane – which involved a lot of laughter.

The improvised Christmas tree in our living room

I even created my own holiday TV programme to substitute the dreadful holiday season on Austrian TV (Sissi trilogy, Home Alone, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and other movies everyone knows inside and out already but which are shown every year just the same) for Taiwanese movies (I can recommend Zoom Hunting, I yet have to watch The Drummer and some others), Japanese ones (Noriko's Dinner Table was a bit weird, in a creepy way), Korean ones (Old Boy! Strong narrative techniques, suspense until the last minute, impressive acting by the lead actor and the crazy long unchoreographed fighting sequence shot in one continuous shot! Next movie, once I find it: Happiness!).

On Christmas eve proper, we celebrated in my aunt's karaoke bar, shaking our booties and singing ABBA and various other classics (English and Tagalog alike). We ate pancit (noodles), chop suey and a Filipino dish of meat stewed with banana leaf strips. There also was what I shall call 'Gulasch with a twist' (an orangey Hungarian soup with pork chops and red pepper also popular in neighbouring Austria), the twist being the chili my aunt's friends had added which gave it a deep red shade.

For our second Christmas dinner, we joined an old family friend in her new home outside of Vienna near the forest, whose kids – my mischievous childhood playmates – I saw the first time in like, 15 years! It is bizarre to see two overweight kids grown into solarium-tanned, VERY built and/or liposuctioned adults hung with self-earned designer clothes and jewelry who are in a position to binge away thousands of Euros with colleagues in one night. We ate fish and a really hot, yet delicious yellow curry with (lots of!) real chili that seared my taste buds away.

On our final dinner for this year, I also had the chance to catch up with my niece who is older than me and visiting Austria with her husband and daughter. Let's hope I get to visit them in Australia one day!

 I hope you all had a merry Christmas!

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