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Rant & Rave

By Aned Muniz

Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Holidays in
Austria unforgettable

AUSTRIAN Christmas (Weihnachten in German, literally, "Solemn Nights") starts officially on the fourth Sunday before Dec. 25. This is the beginning of Advent, traditionally a time of fasting, but today a period of boisterous merry-making.

Young adults with a bachelor's degree can experience the festivities firsthand by spending a year in Austria as English Teaching Assistants to Austrian high school teachers. (For more information, contact the Austrian-American Educational Commission Fulbright Commission at: Schmidgasse 14, A-1082 Vienna, Austria.)

It is an experience you will never forget. During these weeks, the central plaza of each city countrywide is transformed into a zone of festivity. Here, one finds artisans offering their wares, vendors selling a variety of Austrian food and drink, carnival rides for keiki, live music, and, of course, carousers and revelers drinking beer and Apfelmost (a strong cider).

At home, Advent is observed with a bit more solemnity. Each Sunday evening, the family comes together to light the candles of the Advent wreath, a beautiful homemade garland.

Dec. 6 marks Nikolaustag, the day of St. Nikolaus, or, as we know him in America, Santa Claus. His mission is to reward well-behaved children with gifts and candy. The misbehaved are left to the Krampus to punish. The Krampus, a sort of hirsuite devil with a clanging cow-bell attached to his waist, is Nikolaus' nemesis, and he brandishes a large broom to swat wrongdoers' behinds.

Interestingly, it is the Krampus who commands center-stage at the public celebration of Nikolaustag. In fact, an entire army of Krampuses runs noisily through the city, batting the backsides of hapless victims, converging on the central plaza and dancing a wild dance. Meanwhile, St. Nick is relegated to the role of emcee.

Christmas Day in Austria is observed quietly. The candles of the tree are illuminated, and everyone gathers around it to sing. The evening passes gaily, with conversation and Christmas film classics on television. But the gathering usually breaks up early, everyone worn-out from the eve before.

THE next holiday of the season is, of course, New Year's Eve. Known by its religious name, Silvester, the arrival of the new year is celebrated in unmistakable Austrian fashion. At midnight, following a champagne toast, celebrants pair up to dance the first waltz of the year. It is lovely to see an entire household dancing to the music of Strauss. Keiki entertain themselves by exploding firecrackers in the snow.

The most distinctly Austrian part of the celebration comes with the Bleigiessen (literally, "lead pouring"). The ritual consists of melting a token of lead over an open flame, immediately pouring the molten metal into cold water, and, finally, interpreting the fantastic shapes the lead assumes. This must once have been serious business, but today, Austrians laugh heartily as they try to divine meaning from twisted metal.

There are, with the beginning of the new year, two principal holidays that remain to the season: Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, the celebration of the three Magi who visited the infant Jesus; and Lichtmesse (Light Mass) on Feb. 2, a church Mass illuminated by dozens of candles as a sort of final celebration of the season's light.

With this, at the beginning of February, Christmas comes officially to an end in Austria. Decorations are removed, the city returns to its normal state, and life adopts its familiar rhythms. However, the memory and spirit of the season linger, and, in any case, it is only a short while before Christmas in Austria will start anew.

Aned Muniz, who attended the University of Hawai'i,
spent two years in Austria.

Rant & Rave is a Tuesday Star-Bulletin feature
allowing those 12 to 22 to serve up fresh perspectives.
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