Beating Holiday Stress To the Punsch

Overflowing with Glühwein, twinkling lights and trinkets, Vienna’s Christmas markets offer holiday cheer in a steaming mug

The view over Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt | Photo: Heribert Corn

It is a scientifically proven fact that people who spend too much time in shopping malls in November and December start to exhibit signs of psychosis, particularly when additionally exposed to Christmas carols.  But, tu felix Austria, don’t despair, Christkindlmärkte (Christmas markets) are the perfect counterweight to the hectic modern holiday season, bringing old-fashioned cosiness to an otherwise stressful time of year.  At least, that’s the idea.

For the four weeks of Advent, soaking up the tidings of comfort and joy, buying gifts for loved ones, and noshing on treats that should be eaten but once a year can be done at any one of the Christmas markets that spring up around the city. Vienna boasts a wide range, from the Medieval Christmas Market at the Arsenal where visitors drink “witches’ potion” instead of Glühwein, or the modern plastic caves in the courtyard of the MQ, to the hip, student-friendly Altes AKH, where you can dance with 20-somethings to “Anton aus Tirol”.

No Accounting for Taste

In a study of the Christkindlmärkte on www.marketagent.com, one thousand Austrians between the ages of 14 and 69 were asked to rate the selection and quality of food and drink, the affordability, the decorations, the quality of the handicrafts, and the general atmosphere of Christmas cheer. Overall, the Rathaus took top honours as Austria’s favorite.

Its Adventmarkt, a 500-pound gorilla of Christmas spirit, is not lacking in cheer. Emphasising the commercial rather than the traditional, the Rathausplatz becomes a veritable theme park of Yuletide. According to the study, the Rathaus ranks as one of the least atmospheric Christmas markets in the country; Schönbrunn, a relative newcomer, is supposedly the most Christmassy Christkindlmarkt in Vienna.

So why do Austrians, known for their love of tradition, prize something so big and glitzy?  One night on the other side of town, I asked Bert, a native Viennese, what he thought of the Rathaus. “Awful, bad kitsch, bombastic. I prefer Spittelberg – it’s got better kitsch.” My doubts affirmed, I biked to Rathausplatz one evening to ask the Austrians why on earth they were here and not at Spittelberg.

Getting to the Punsch

Coming around the corner from the U-Bahn station on a cold foggy night, the first sight is a white haze of lights blazing against the dark sky and black tangles of tree branches, consumer seduction to the tune of the Las Vegas strip. A huge Santa Claus figure rears up from the roof of an ornament stall; the stalls at this Christkindlmarkt are seemingly three times as wide and twice as brightly lit as those at any of the others, sort of like a cold, wood-and-tinsel department store.

In the evening, the Rathausplatz crawls with happy students, pink-cheeked with mugs of Punsch clutched in their hands. The few families circle protectively around their children and elders; tourists guard their valuables. Hearts and stars decorate the branches of the trees high above, and smells of spices, cloves, sausage, garlic and mulled wine fill your senses.

On my way to get a Punsch, a particularly cheerful group of young students barred my way. “So,” I said, “what brings you all here tonight?” The answer surprised me with its simplicity. “Because it’s simply THE Christkindlmarkt!” This was more or less shouted in unison, though they did confess an appreciation for the other Viennese Christmas markets, as well as those from their hometowns (according to Mara, “Villach’s is wunderbar”).

Staggered a bit by their enthusiasm and still thirsty, I pushed past a stand with a vast spread of holiday CDs and pumping a rock version of “O Holy Night” through the loudspeakers. “Oh niiiiiiiiight, di-VIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE!” This was too much for my sobriety, and I nudged my way past a stall of light-up Santa hats, before the syncopated chorus started.

The next group that I bumped into was older and well-versed in the art of sarcasm. From them, I got chuckles and a simple “it was the only one open” or “it was nearest to my work.” After a bit of prodding, they conceded that “sure, there are prettier ones”, but the Rathaus worked well enough for tonight.

Finally in line at the Punsch stand, I talked to Marina, Eduardo, Jade and Eva, all Erasmus students from Spain. It was the first time they’d seen a Christkindlmarkt and they were rapturous. They came to the Rathaus because of its size and fame, and also because they’d heard that it was the most beautiful. It didn’t disappoint – “like a fairy tale”, according to Marina.

Scrooges Unwelcome

Ultimately, I didn’t have the heart to ask my second question, namely, if my interviewees were at all annoyed by the kitsch. Somehow, it seemed like a moot point. They were here, after all, warming their hands with mugs of mulled wine, surrounded by friends, eyes sparkling with merriment. They were certainly happier than I was, still mugless.

What good was it doing me to be so bothered by what I saw as bad taste, a lack of authenticity, and commercialism? Alone, sullen, cold and bitter, surrounded on all sides by good holiday cheer, I’d transported yet another mainstay of the Anglo-Saxon holiday season to keep Santa Claus company: I was Ebenezer Scrooge. Only a Scrooge could look at the illuminated Rathaus towering behind the Christkindlmarkt and deny its beauty. Not me, I proclaimed to myself. “Ein Punsch, bitte!”

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