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Christmas in Germany and Austria


Germanic cities host colorful Christmas markets with all the seasonal toys and treats. We learn that German kids believe the Christkind (a female angel) brings gifts. And in Austria, which gave us “Silent Night,” a welcoming family shares their holiday traditions.

Complete Video Script

We'll be back when dinner's ready. But first… we've got some shopping to do… in Germany. When it comes to traditional images of Christmas in Europe, Germany's Bavaria is the heartland. Here we'll savor classic holiday themes: glittering trees, old time carols, and colorful Christmas markets.

These markets — called Christkindl markets — enliven squares throughout Germany. The most famous is here in Nürnberg. It's a festive swirl of the heart-warming sights, sounds and smells of Christmas.

Long a center of toy making in Germany, a woody and traditional ambiance prevails. Nutcrackers are characters of authority — uniformed, strong-jawed and able to crack the tough nuts. Smokers — with their fragrant incense wafting — feature common folk like this village toy-maker. Prune people — with their fig body, walnut head, and prune limbs — are dolled up in Bavarian folk costumes.

And hovering above it all is the golden rausch angel — an icon of Christmas in Nürnberg. Rausch is the sound of wind blowing through its wings. It's a favorite for capping family Christmas trees.

Bakeries crank out old fashioned gingerbread — the Lebkuchen Nürnberg — using the original 17th century recipe.

Back then, Nürnberg was the gingerbread capital of the world and its love affair with gingerbread lives on.

Shoppers can also munch the famous Nürnberg bratwurst — skinny as your little finger — and sip hot-spiced wine.

As in so many cultures, kids love their local version of Santa Claus. While Santa is a legend, his character is based on St. Nicholas — a kind and generous bishop who actually lived in Turkey in the 4th century. Holiday gift giving — especially in Catholic regions — is often associated with the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6.

But Germany is Luther country. Back in the early 1500s the Great Reformer, Martin Luther, wanted to humanize the Christmas story by shifting the focus away from saints and back on the birthday boy… Jesus. Rather than Jolly Old St. Nick bringing the goodies on December 6, Luther established the idea that gifts would be given on the 25th by the Christ child or, in German, the Christ Kind.

But for kids it was hard to imagine the little baby in the manger delivering gifts so an angel served as the gift-giving Christ child — and somehow the angel came to be represented by a young girl. She spends her reign spreading the joy of the season.

The Christ Kind concludes by telling the enthralled children, "If you're very, very gentle you can touch my wings."

Nürnberg's favorite angel then leads her fans into the children's section of the market: where expertly bundled kids enjoy a Christmas wonderland.

The Christ Kind isn't the only one handing out good cheer. Carolers spread the joy of Christmas using the town's historic courtyards as impromptu concert venues.

And here in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, seasonal music fills the churches.

(Choir singing.)

Now we cross the border into Austria to the town that to me always feels like Christmas… Salzburg. With its old town gathered under its formidable castle, Salzburg celebrates the holidays with an Alpine elegance. Christmassy shopping lanes delight browsers. Markets are busy as shoppers gather last minute holiday decorations and perhaps a fresh sprig of mistletoe.

These Tirolians celebrate the season in noisier fashions as well. From the castle ramparts, high above town, traditional gunners fire away as they have since the days when they really believed these shots would scare away evil spirits.

Salzburg, nicknamed the Rome of the north, has a magnificent cathedral — inspired by St. Peter's at the Vatican. Locals here in the town of Mozart pack the place to mix worship with glorious music.

(Singing/playing music.)

It was here, in the region of Salzburg that the most loved carol of the Christmas season, Silent Night was first sung nearly two hundred years ago.

According to legend, a local priest went out one Christmas night to bless a newborn baby. As he walked home in the snow, he was so moved by the stillness of the starlit and holy night that he wrote a poem about it. He gave the poem to Franz Gruber, the organist in his church, who composed a simple tune. On Christmas Eve 1818 the carol was sung for the first time… accompanied only by a guitar.

(Two men singing Silent Night in Austrian with guitar.)

Austria is one of Europe's more traditional corners. Its strong Catholicism and a love of heritage shine especially brightly at Christmas time in the countryside.

We're visiting the Weissacher family farm. A typically Tirolian Christmas yodel offers us the warmest of welcomes…

This family is happy to share its love of the season with a guest.

Like just about anywhere — part of Christmas is making cookies with grandma.

More unique to Austria is this ritual in which the dad blesses the home with incense as his daughter follows with holy water. The prayer is for a healthy and happy new year.

Maria teaches her daughters how the Advent Wreath marks the four weeks of Advent — the season of preparation leading to the advent or arrival of Jesus. Ancient peoples were the first wreathmakers. For Christians, that evergreen circle came to symbolize everlasting life. The candles, one for each week, reminded them that the birth of their savior was approaching.

Austrians lovingly decorate their tree… but keep it secret and hidden from the children… until December 24th arrives. We'll check back a little later to see what Christmas brings.