Salzburg: The Christmas City

I watched the Queen’s speech. Christmas is a time for family, she said. A common theme and one I am sure she’s said before, or maybe I’m thinking of The Crown… For her, like many others, Christmas is about celebrating the most significant date in the Christian calendar. So, Christmas is about family and religion – but is it really?  Families gather for maybe two days in December – on Christmas day and perhaps on Boxing day. We are also an increasingly secular nation. So, what is the dominant narrative of Christmas? The one that gets the nation so excited weeks and months before the birth of Christ?

Christmas, if the advertisements would have us believe it, is populated by of snow and bells and irritatingly happy people singing carols. I think we all know that it rarely snows at Christmas, while carols are Christian hymns and mostly take place in churches where a lot of the population don’t visit. Yet, I like all these things, I also like mulled wine, mince pies and getting presents.

I get that Christmas is an experience, I’m all for it, but it could be better, it could be a lot more authentic – let’s model it on Salzburg! I went there at beginning of December and am totally charmed. I left with just what I had not expected, ‘Christmas spirit’.

I drank Gluhwein in the markets, looked at Christmas decorations, at hats and gloves and ate pretzels the size of my face. I walked through the streets as it snowed and ducked in and out of the narrow stone passageways that are the arteries off the main street. I admired the beautiful, copper green, spires of the endless churches. People skated on the ice rink. I was totally consumed by this vision of Christmas – I had recaptured my childhood sense of wonder.

Had I not been taken I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Christmas museum, I expected to have a bit of a giggle at the twee collection of a fanatic, some Santa gnomes and lots and lots of baubles. In fact, it was like the rest of Salzburg, very tasteful and compact and taught me a great deal. I learnt that Christmas in Austria is terrifying, Santa’s duties are split between nice St Nicholas, giver of gifts to the good children, and the much more than naughty Krampus, tormentor of the bad children. Krampus tends to have a skeletal face, ram’s horn, red tongue and a tail, scary enough an image for me – but what about the children?! In one of the Christmas markets I went to, a more local one, they had his disembodied head hanging from a tree. The museum also had collections of decorative wooden nutcrackers and Christmas paraphernalia, which was genuinely tasteful. It conveyed all of the tradition of Christmas without the commerce that now comes with it.

It is possible to be transfixed by a down to earth and authentic vision of Christmas. I think it would sell better. Save the twee ads and put those execs on a plane to Austria. Perhaps they could distil some of the essence of what made me quite so charmed. Then this Grinch will be decked in tinsel, singing Christmas songs at midnight on the first of December.

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