When the days become shorter and candles illuminate the houses, when a hot cup of tea or mulled wine warms body and mind and the aroma of home-made cookies fills the living rooms, then it is Advent time and Christmas is coming.
Highly popular at this time of the year are the well-known and oh-so beautiful Christmas markets. Christmas markets actually date back to the 14th century, when craftsmen, confectioners and toy manufacturers were looking for new ways to sell their goods. And finally they came up with a brilliant idea: they asked the regents of the town for the authorisation to build their own little stands on the market square. And today? While in the past they sold home-made goods on a small basis, today you will find numerous little wooden houses selling everything you can wish for. Ranging from Christmas decoration and tiny figures made of home-made gingerbread to candles, music instruments and dolls - today’s Christmas markets offer everything that somehow suites this special time of the year.
The Christmas markets of Nuremberg and Munich are known as the largest ones of all German speaking countries. Numerous cities and towns, however, have made Christmas markets an essential part of their Christmas time - this is true for many Austrian capitals such as Salzburg, and every bigger town in South Tyrol such as Bolzano (pic), Bressanone, Vipiteno and Merano.
Wherever you go and wherever you look at this special time of the year, you will be offered the most delicious Christmas cakes and cookies. A special kind of Christmas cakes may be found in Tyrol and South Tyrol, where the so-called “Zelten” - a rye flour Christmas cake with candied fruit, nuts and honey - promise a special kind of experience. Even if home-made Zelten have become rare, those baked by professional confectioners are nevertheless a culinary heaven.
In the past, the delicious Zelten were made only on December 22. Dried pears, figs and nuts were refined with honey, liqueur and cinnamon and then given away to maids and farm labourers. One huge Zelten, however, was kept back and dedicated to the family. And every Christmas custom was combined with the tasting of a special culinary delicacy - the traditional Zelten. Today, however, the Zelten is eaten for its nice and refined taste!
The custom of incense burning
In a secret corner of our heart, we all love Christmas: the images, smells and stories of advent and Christmas exert a magical fascination on us. In rituals and customs Christmas comes to live again. At a certain time around Christmas - in some Alpine regions it is on January, 6, or the night before - the family unites, prayers are said and blessed incense is burnt. Doorways are sprinkled with holy water and a family member writes the letters C, M, B and the year above each house and barn door. C + M + B has traditionally been translated with Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, however, according to the Church it stands for “Christus Mansionem Benedictat” (Christ bless this home).
An old pan is filled with glow, covered with incense and then brought into every room, even to the barn, fields and cars. The whole family takes part in this custom, saying prayers and sprinkling holy water to the doorways…
The Three Kings
In the time after Christmas, altar boys dressed as the three kings go from door to door and sing religious songs. Holding up a large star, they collect donations that go to charities in the local region or the Third World.