Stores throughout Salzburg are decorated with elaborate Christmas scenes and festive lights in late November and giant Christmas trees decorated in silver and gold go up in all the squares. Christmas markets spring up all over town – in the elegant Marktplatz, outside the cathedral, in the gardens of Schloss Mirabell, and at Schloss Hellbrunn. Here the market is held in the courtyard, with the castle windows serving as a gigantic advent calendar. Stalls sell presents, tree decorations, chestnuts, gingerbread and toasted almonds; people crowd around the Christmas trees to sing carols and sip glühwein.
Kids join in traditional Nativity plays, performed all over the city, and nativity scenes – in which the stable becomes an Alpine chalet – are created in the churches. Christmas concerts, from the Salzburg Adventsingen to carol performances in the Schloss Hohensalzburg, take place during Advent. Early in December, spectacular pagan Perchten processions take place, in which men wearing terrifying fanged demon masks rampage through the streets to rid them of evil spirits.
The Feast of St Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th, when children are rewarded for good behavior with gifts of fruit and candy, but the main present-giving frenzy is reserved for December 24th.
On Christmas Eve, Salzburg closes down. Families return home to decorate and light their Christmas trees. Bells are rung to welcome Christ into the house – traditionally he brings the presents – and Christmas carols are sung, including ‘Silent Night’, written near Salzburg in 1818. Presents are then opened and households sit down to a feast of baked carp and sachertorte before going to Midnight Mass. December 25th and 26th are also public holidays; much food and drink is consumed and there are raucous family parties.
- Sasha Heseltine