Before we girls, that is my 3 sisters and I, were married, and before we moved to different parts of Europe, we spent a merry and reflective Christmas with some chosen aunts and uncles and especially my paternal grandfather with my parents in Lower Austria!
What times those were! All guests arrived around December 22nd. We girls hung at the window and vied to see who could see the headlights of our uncle and my father’s father in the distance first, or the return of my father who picked up the other guests from the train station!
And how joyful these greetings were! Everyone always brought with them some specialty from their corner of the different countries. From Cervelatwurst to Mettenden, etc. They were usually placed in front of the kitchen window on the first floor, or on the gallery, with the warning to everyone not to snack on them. Of course, the Cervelatwurst in particular was gone within the first 3 days!
The guests were shown to their rooms where my mother had prepared little bowls with biscuits and pine branches and water bottles with glasses for everyone.
After that, we usually met in the kitchen. My grandfather was great and always helpful. Peeling potatoes in particular was his specialty. Neither of us was particularly keen on this work, but we stood in the kitchen, the adults with their favorite drink, we girls just to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle and of course to help. My parents and we made a great team at cooking, and with so many people it was important to be organized and coordinated. Incidentally, the coordination came from my father. He prepared menus weeks in advance, which were also adhered to. But we always cooked together and the kitchen, which thank God was big enough, was always the center of the house.
On December 23rd the big Christmas tree was carried into the hall. All the men were asked to help, since a 4m50 large fir tree weighs a lot. We sisters were also brought in. Doors had to be opened and trestles put up to put the tree down as to fix the stand.
And then the tree was put up. Every year under the oh and ah of the entire workforce! And every year this tree was the most beautiful we ever had! But didn’t put up the decoration! We only helped the Christ Child to carry the heavy burden. In our house and indeed in many parts of Austria and Germany not Santa Clause brings the presents but its the Christkind or Christ Child that always decorates the tree and brings the presents on the 24th of december. This means that from December 23rd the room with the Christmas tree is locked to the children.
Of course, from a certain age we knew who the Christ Child was. Just like my sons after us, my sisters and I peered through the gallery windows into the hall and watched the preparations. And of course I knew from my own experience that something like this could happen when I had my children, but I found this way of finding out nicer for the children as a simple “it doesn’t exist”. When my eldest came to me at the age of 8 and said that he knew what was going on, I replied that he had better keep it to himself because his mother was definitely not as generous with gifts as the Christ Child. To this day he stiffly and firmly claims that the Christ Child exists – yes, yes, he is a smart boy!
So on December 24th we always found ourselves in the salon, all in our most beautiful clothes (with 4 girls and aunts and uncles the scramble for the bathroom was always hilarious but frustrating) and waited again, with a drink in hand, for the bell of the Christ Child to ring that announced its passing.
And then the doors were opened and we children were first sent into the darkened room. Even today I am still happy about the OOOHHH of the little children when they see the beautifully decorated and brightly lit Christmas tree for the first time on Christmas Eve.
We gathered in front of the Christmas tree and one of those present read the beautiful Christmas Gospel by the light of a small lamp. Then Silent Night, Holy Night was sung. When one of my mother’s brothers celebrated with us, we were very well off because he played the piano wonderfully on my great-grandmother’s piano and kept our singing in time. When he had his own family and stopped coming, singing was a little more adventurous!
In the hall there was also a table covered with a white tablecloth, which curved under the presents as it is with small children. The older we got, the smaller the packages got because a book is not as big as a pack of building blocks. Every member of the Christmas party was given a place to find their presents.
Of course, the children always got the most, but the adults also exchanged little presents. And it was always a pleasure for the adults to watch the children unpack first. Then the guests opened their presents, but my parents were always there to watch and enjoy the presents with them. As a child I never understood why they didn’t simply open theirs, but since I grew up myself I have discovered why. The joy of giving is actually greater than the joy of receiving.
After opening the presents and initial play, my parents called us for dinner. At the very beginning, we always had sausages with potato salad, just like my father’s mother used to do. The big meal was on December 25th with other elderly relatives. You could prepare the potato salad wonderfully 1 – 2 days in advance, the sausages stayed warm in the hot water until they were served. In many German-speaking families, it is still a tradition to bring sausages and potato salad to the table on Christmas Eve. The simple meal on Christmas Eve probably has religious roots: In early Christianity, fasting was not only done before Easter, but also before Christmas to commemorate the poverty of the Holy Family. The so-called Philip’s fast before Christmas, also known as the “little fasting time”, ends with attending Christmas mass. The feast is on December 25th!
I’m happy to share with you the recipe for my mother’s family’s potato salad. It’s the French potato salad. At least that’s what we call it. When my French husband came to the family, he said very definitely that this potato salad was by no means a French salad. In the meantime I have discovered the mystery. This salad, called Salade Olivieh , was created in the late 19th century by a Belgian chef. This chef named Monsieur Olivieh worked in the famous Hermitage restaurant in Moscow. His salad went around the world and is now known in one form or another in every country. This is the variant from the house of my Viennese great-grandparents on my mother’s side, who probably brought it with them from one of their trips at the beginning of the 20th century and made a French salad out of the Salade Olivieh. We still know it under this name.
To this day, this salad is made at almost all of our parties. It is ideal for buffets and was never missing at our Christmas parties for the employees, which was always celebrated with us and with us children. Long tables in the cleared hall around which everyone sat and where we celebrated comfortably together.
French potato salad
- 1 kg of waxy potatoes
- 115 g of gherkins
- 220 g carrots and peas from the jar
- 2 small apples
- For the salad dressing
- 160 g mayonnaise
- 160 g yogurt
- Salt, pepper to taste
- 1 lemon
Boil or steam the potatoes with their skin on, then peel and cut into slices when they have cooled. Peel apples.
Cut the gherkins, carrots and apples into small pieces and add to the potatoes with the peas.
For the salad dressing, mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt and lemon and season with salt and pepper.
This salad lasts for 1 – 2 days in a cool place and needs to be steeped a bit before you eat it.
We have Viennese Sausages, also known as Frankfurt Sausages with it!
As we got older, the menu for December 24th changed too. There was a hot stone every Christmas and when I started to develop vegetarian preferences it quickly became raclette, as this way everyone got their money’s worth. Between a selection of different pieces of meat, raclette cheese, two kinds of sauces, baguette, potatoes and salad, it turned from a fasting dish to a complete feast within a few years.
Whatever you prepare on Christmas Eve, I’m sure everyone will enjoy it. This year may have taught us to be satisfied and happy when we have our family around us, and to be aware of the great happiness of spending Christmas with our closest family. We can celebrate again next year in the usual setting with our loved ones!
I hope this little review of my childhood gave you pleasure in reading, just as it gave me incredible joy and consolation to write it down for my children and me and all those who are still alive from our Christmas parties. At this point I would like to especially thank my wonderful parents who gave me these wonderful, unforgettable memories!
A wonderful Christmas to all of you, even if it cannot be celebrated as usual. Call the people you love, especially those who have to celebrate without their families!
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In this wonderful church in Lower Austria I had the great joy to marry my best friend and great love on December 31, 2001 under my beloved Christmas trees. The Christmas season really plays the biggest role for me!