A different kind of Christmas

Yes, I’m still writing about pre-Christmas stuff.  I’ll get caught up.  Eventually.  Probably.  (Maybe.  After all, I still have posts to finish about our summer vacation last year . . . and the year before.)

1062One of my favorite times of year in Vienna is the Advent season.  From mid-November through Christmastime the Christmas markets are open, the weather is cool but not overly frigid, the city is lit up to celebrate and the Viennese are enjoying the season.  I just love it.  I love to be out and about, taking care of my Christmas shopping somewhere other than the mall, visiting the different markets, decorating the house, preparing (usually) to travel home to see our families.  I just love Vienna in the Advent season.  It hasn’t yet failed to be wonderful.

But this year was different.  From the day after the first market opened in November, all the way through the day before we left to fly home to see our families for Christmas, at least one of us was sick.  There were only 2 days during the entire month of December that none of us was sick enough to have to alter our daily schedule — we had only 2 “healthy” days during the entirety of the Christmas season.

996So, it was different than usual.  There were almost no Christmas market visits (and only one together as a family).  We didn’t go out to see the Christmas lights.  We didn’t ride on the Christmas train at the Rathaus, see the decorated trees or ride the carousel.  I didn’t take the boys out to choose gifts for their teachers (or for each other).  I wasn’t able to go to the Christmas party at Benjamin’s school, and Liam wasn’t able to go to the one for his own class.  The days I had set aside to shop and pack for our trip home were superseded by trips to the pediatrician and mornings spent rushing to school to pick up boys that had seemed fine in the morning, only to be feverish by snack time.

094It was entirely different than what I expected . . . but it was no less festive.  We went out less, and we were in more.  So there were fewer red-cheeked pictures under massive Christmas trees, and more afternoons spent painting trees and snowmen onto our own windows.  There were fewer warm treats scarfed up in the chill of the market, but much more baking in our own kitchen.  The boys’ teachers got shortbread that the kids helped to make themselves instead of something chosen from a shop.  And I spent an insane 48 hours before our departure to the US in a whirlwind of laundry, packing, trips to the pediatrician and to the pharmacy.

I know I have a tendency to be ve1012ry “Pollyanna” about just about everything, but (other than the kids being sick) it wasn’t awful.  It was a good reminder.  Our Christmas season wasn’t at all what I expected, and it wasn’t full of the things I usually say I want to do during Advent.  But what we lost in bustle we made up for in peace (the last 48 hours of mad packing not withstanding).  And having to accept the utter “imperfection” (i.e., lack of adherence to my “plan”) of preparing for our trip helped to put me in the right perspective — what mattered wasn’t really whether all of the “right” socks were clean or whether we got all of our presents wrapped before we packed them, but that we were going home to see our family, who were all overjoyed to see us, regardless of the chaotic and disheveled state we arrived in.

It wasn’t the Christmas season I would have planned, but it was no less wonderful.  It was lovely just how it was.



012I love Vienna at Christmas time.  I find that I am able to capture, here, pieces of the holidays that I’d been looking for but couldn’t always find at home.  I feel like the focus here is on family, on enjoyment and celebration, with frenetic shopping and consumerism replaced by evenings at the Christmas markets with family or friends.

If I paint an idealized picture, it only reflects how grateful I feel to Vienna.  My time here has reminded me what I want from the holidays and shown me what is possible.


014We spent a magical evening yesterday at, of all places, the Rathaus Christmas market here in Vienna.  The Rathaus market can be a bit touristy and gaudy, and in previous years, has not been one of my favorites.  I was won over last night, by taking the kids and seeing it through their eyes.

The trees are all lit up.  Not just a little, but with enthusiasm.  10 or so massive trees in the park around the Rathaus are decked out impressively, each in a different theme: hearts, snowmen, teddy bears, stars ….  It transforms the park into a wonderland, a larger-than-life fantasy world where 60 three-foot-tall tall teddy bears camp in a tree together.  Then there were pony rides with little fingers snuggled into fuzzy coats and a train ride that wove between the decorated 046trees.  Then we had to try the carousel and Santa’s sleigh, all beneath the festive trees and the impressive yet warm facade of the Rathaus itself.  The boys were so excited to be entrusted to deliver their tickets for the rides themselves, and I was immensely proud to hear their pleases and thank yous.

With the weather below freezing, we were nearly finished by that point, except for a stop at the market for each of us to choose a special treat.  Dan and I had the best hot chocolate in Vienna, while Benjamin insisted on a langos and Liam chose a bag of fruit gummies, which he happily gobbled down right in front of the market stall (to the amusement of the proprietor and several other customers).


We hurried home to get out of the cold, but it was a magical night.  Ponies, trains, trees full of light and all of us, together.  I hope it was a night that they’ll remember.  I hope they, too, can hold on to these beautiful moments of Christmas in Vienna.







This year at the Christmas markets

Odd as it may seem, with both of the boys in school each morning, I’m finding that I have less time to visit the Christmas markets than I have in years past.  In fact, I’ve only been a few times so far this year, and only to 4 of the markets (which might sound like a lot, but it isn’t for me).

047I wish I had more time to see them, but with our schedule the way that it is right now, my mornings are packed full of dropping off the kids, running errands, going to the grocery store and exciting stuff like showering.  But, each time I’ve gotten to go so far this year has been as great as ever.  I love the Christmas markets.  I love how laid back and festive they are.  I love getting to go for a walk outside and shop at the same time.  I love not having to find a parking space and not having to deal with massive crowds.  I love getting to buy gifts from small shops, and often directly from the artists or artisans.  I just love Christmas shopping in Vienna.


My plan is to do some more shopping at the markets over the next few days, and to take the kids to the Rathaus market for the rides and lights one evening very soon.  10 days from today, we leave to go home, which I am immensely excited about.  But that also means we’re in a 10 day countdown to enjoy as much of Vienna’s Christmassy goodness as we can before we go.  I want to enjoy this lovely part of living in Vienna.  It’s my most favorite time of the year!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Well, it’s here again!  It’s once again one of my most favorite times of year in Vienna.  The maroni stands are open, the Christmas lights are being hoisted over the streets and wound around trees, and … the Christmas markets are starting to open!

004The first few opened up this weekend: Am Hof, followed by the Prater, Stephansplatz (which is new this year) and Rathaus markets.  We stopped by the Am Hof market this past weekend for a quick look around (I’ve found that the kids do better on quick trips and that it’s best if I save the serious shopping to when I can go by myself).

I just love the atmosphere of the Christmas markets.  It’s always chilly (if not downright cold), but there are always so many people out having a snack or a drink, doing a little shopping, or just being social.  It’s so festive and wintry, and I love getting to do some Christmas shopping outdoors, at small shops, instead of at the mall.

007Unlike in past years, I don’t have a Christmas market plan or strategy this year.  We’ve seen most of them over the past few years, we know which ones we like the best, and I imagine we’ll focus on visiting the ones we enjoy the most.  Since I now have most mornings free, I can go to any of the markets for a quick visit or a long stroll, any day I like.  It all feels much more relaxed than it has in the past.

I am so looking forward to my visits to the Christmas markets again this year.  By this coming weekend, they should all be in full swing, and I’m excited to visit all of my favorites again … soon!

A clueless American’s guide to Vienna’s Christmas markets, part 3

I kept waiting to write this because I was hoping to make it to a few more markets before the end of the season . . . but they continued to elude me.  I couldn’t find the right time to go, the weather didn’t cooperate, we got busy with other things.  And then, Christmas was upon us and I took a break and a vacation from writing the blog to relax and spend more time with my family.  And, the upshot is that we ended up visiting the same 9 Christmas markets this year that we saw last year, and I’m just now getting around to finishing up recording our experiences.  (I’ve already shared my thoughts on the Am Hof, Rathaus, Spittelberg, Maria-Theresienplatz, Freyung and Karlsplatz markets.)

And yes, I realize it’s now after Christmas and all of the markets (even the few that stayed open through New Year’s Eve) have been closed up and packed away until next year.  But, perhaps this will be useful in future years.  So, in the spirit of “better late than never”, I present my thoughts on visiting three more of Vienna’s Christmas markets:

017AKH — This market, on the grounds of part of the University of Vienna (I believe it’s the medical school, but I’m not sure) is just far enough off of the beaten track of tourist venues to have a diffrent feel from the other markets.  Before about 6 in the evening, it’s a very quiet market, with a lot of handcrafted (but not very many Austrian) items.  There are a lot of varieties and options in terms of drinks (including several specialty/gourmet Punsch options) but only a few places to pick up food (the selection does, however, include an entire stand devoted to cupcakes).  In general, the crowd here is young and single (probably owing to the university location) and a lot of the market stalls reflect the age 030and tastes of the customers — lots of shops selling candles, woolen hats and wall decorations, and decidedly fewer selling fine food or artful home decor.  They do have a section of nice (if odd — the carousel contains a Mickey Mouse with glowing red eyes) children’s rides at a reasonable price.  (Wednesdays also offered children’s rides at a discount.)  The center of the market is built around a kind of bocce ball court which is the focus of a lot of the activity and socialization.  I’ve had several of my local, Austrian friends recommend this market, and that doesn’t surprise me — the Punsch is good and the atmosphere is less commercial.  I imagine that after years of wading through the tourists at the Rathaus or the Freyung, something like AKH is a welcome change.  (Although, along with the less touristy feel came a much lower percentage of English-speaking vendors.)  Aside from taking the kids on the rides, we didn’t spend a lot of time here, but I imagine that teenagers and young adults would particularly enjoy this market.

014Schonbrunn — It’s just not possible for the other markets to compete with the setting of Schonbrunn.  The market is laid out right in front of the massive and beautiful summer palace, and, if you find yourself in Vienna around Christmas, you should absolutely go.  It’s a bit of a trek by public transport from the center of Vienna (takes about 30-40 minutes) but it’s well worth it.  Of course, because it’s lovely, the tour buses pull up out front and unload mobs of tourists, so it’s always busy and crowded.  But, the market has a wide variety of wares for sale (with a lot of duplication from best of the retailers from the other markets), some of the best food we’ve had at a Christmas market (the krapfen, freshly made and filled to order are a special treat), and lots of warm drinks (including hot chocolate, which is surprisingly hard to find at a Christmas market).  Because this is a big market, housed in front of the palace, it can be really cold, and even windy as you meander through the stalls (most other markets, held in squares or on narrow streets can be quite cozy and warmer than you’d expect).  They don’t have any rides or entertainment for the kids, but the grounds are vast and just around the back of the palace.  We’ve found the Schonbrunn market one of the best to visit with the kids, because when they get bored, we can wander the grounds for an hour and then come back to the market when everyone is cold and ready for a warm drink.  The market at Schonbrunn is really not to be missed.  (This market is also one of the few that is open between Christmas and New Year’s, but I’ve never been after Christmas.)

043Belvedere —  The Belvedere market also benefits from a lovely setting.  It’s a small-to-medium sized market, with a lot of focus on food and drink and socializing.  There are some nice items for sale in the market stalls, but I noticed a lot of vendors from countries around Austria — the Czech Republic and Hungary, in particular — and fewer local ones.  Since Belvedere is also not in the main tourist area of the city, the prices seem to be a bit lower and the crowds are a bit thinner.  Every time I’ve been to the Belvedere market, there has been some kind of live music, and since (unlike other markets) the stage is located in the center of the market, it’s a real focus.  They do have a few small children’s rides off to one side, as well.  It’s a very nice market to soak up some music, laughter, conversation and Christmas spirit.


‘Tis the season for many things — decorations, lights, music, holiday shopping (which means Christmas markets here in Vienna) and lots of festive foods and drinks.  Punsch is particularly popular here (we’re not entirely sure what it is, and it seems to vary by vendor, but it appears to be rum or vodka and a little bit of fruit juice, served warm), as well as hot chocolate, mulled wine, cookies and gingerbread.  Lots and lots of different kinds of gingerbread.

To me, gingerbread is something that makes little houses which are fun to decorate (theoretically — I haven’t actually done it in years) or a flavor that goes into a latte.  I did buy some mix last year and make a few gingerbread cake men (very yummy) but I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to gingerbread in my life.

In Vienna, gingerbread is a big deal.  There are entire shops at the Christmas markets devoted to nothing but different kinds of gingerbread — cakes, loaves, cookies.  At the Christmas market closest to our house, there are *3* gingerbread shops.  (Think about that for a minute:  3 shops that only sell gingerbread.  Seriously.)

A few weeks ago, Benjamin asked for a treat from one of the gingerbread shops when we were out.  He selected something from the case, took one bite, and decided he wasn’t interested.  I decided to try it.  What he had selected was gingerbread, topped with raspberry jam and coated in dark chocolate.  Yup.  It’s great.  I’ve been converted.  Now I love gingerbread.

Now, when we go to the markets, I often make a stop at a gingerbread shop.  This past weekend, at the Schonbrunn market, I had to elbow and push my way up through the crowd at the gingerbread shop to get up to the front to see what they had.  So, not only do they have dozens of new gingerbread markets around Vienna right now, but you have to shove your way up to the front of the line to get served.  They like their gingerbread here.  So do I.

I love Christmas in Vienna.

A too-busy weekend

Thursday being Thanksgiving, Dan took Thursday and Friday off (like we used to do at home) so that we could take a long holiday weekend and enjoy the beginning of the Christmas season (even here in Vienna, today is the first Sunday of Advent, so Thanksgiving or no, it’s Christmastime now).  It was a great idea, but, as often happens with these lofty and overly rosy images I have of time off as a family, we’re at the end of the weekend, exhausted, off our schedule and a little grumpy.

018We had a great time this weekend (really).  We visited some Christmas markets, we all got to take naps (on at least a few of the days), we went out to eat for Thanksgiving, we got some chores done around the house (not as many as I’d hoped), some of us got to sleep in a little (Dan and Liam did — I’m not bitter) and even went to the zoo today (and saw the pandas for the first time, which was amazing).  It was a fun, packed weekend.  The boys rode on rides at the markets, I did a little Christmas shopping, and we got to spend a lot of time together as a family, which was wonderful.

Really, we had a good weekend.  Really.  But we did too much (and we didn’t even do all of the things we had planned — we do a pretty good job of sticking to a schedule unless it’s labelled “vacation” or “holiday”, in which case everything goes out the window).  So, here we are, trying to get ready for our upcoming week and it’s an hour past the kids’ bedtime and they’re just getting out of the bath.  We got home from the zoo this afternoon completely exhausted and frozen (never trust a Viennese weather report) and by 8:00 we had two kids (who refused to nap earlier) passed out on the couch — too late to be a nap, too early for bedtime.  Benjamin and Liam are still hanging on to the colds they had last week, and now I think Dan & I are getting sick, too.

I’m really glad we had some time off, got to spend so much time together, and took a break from our normal routine to explore and do some fun out-of-the-ordinary things.  But this was not the recipe for a restful holiday.  I think I need a vacation to recover from my long, holiday weekend.


My first Christmas Market

Today was the opening day of a few of the Christmas Markets in Vienna (everything will be open by next weekend) including one of the closest to our house — the one at the town hall (Rathaus).  We decided to stop by the one at the Rathaus on our way home from dinner out with friends.

I’ve been really excited to see what a Vienna Christmas Market is like — I had visions of a scene out of a Christmas card, of an open air market filled with shops selling mulled wine, cider, roasted chestnuts, hand-knitted mittens and hats, charming ornaments and maybe even fresh Christmas wreaths.  I was hoping it would be a place for the boys to get to run around a bit and take in the sights of pre-Christmas merriment, and for us to do some of our holiday shopping.

IMG_2558No — it was insane.  It’s like a county fair, a bar on Saturday night and the Atlantic City boardwalk all wrapped up in a big Christmas bow and wearing a flashing, light up Santa hat (seriously, they actually sell those — at several different shops).  It was so crowded that it was hard to walk, let alone maneuver a stroller through the throngs.  The shops were plentiful (over 130) but heavy on the “punsch” and “gluhwein” and pre-packaged sweets.  Benjamin wanted to have a cookie, and we actually couldn’t find one (which was disappointing).  There were lots of shops with little, cheap, stocking-stuffer type toys, and quite a few that sold either hats or Christmas ornaments (although all the hats and all the ornaments seemed pretty much the same, regardless of the shop).  The crush of people was heavily populated with the young and intoxicated, and there was a lot of smoking (which isn’t surprising for Vienna, but it was so bad that we actually came home reeking of smoke, as though we’d been inside and surrounded by smoke).

IMG_2555On the other hand, the enormous Christmas tree is beautiful, and the lights displays they had off of the main part of the market were elaborate and pretty, as well.  There’s a train that runs around the entire Rathaus park — Benjamin really wants to ride on that soon (and I know we will).

I’d been warned that the Rathaus Christmas Market was the most touristy of all — that the shops there would be selling mass produced, and overpriced, items.  There was a certain festivity to it, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t at all what I expected it to be.  Maybe it was just the first night?  Maybe it was because many of the other markets aren’t yet open?  As we get into December, the entire Rathaus is turned into a giant advent calendar (they decorate and reveal a different window every day) so we’ll definitely be back over there between now and the holidays.  I’m curious to see what it will be like in the coming weeks, as well as how it’s different during the day, and during the week.  We’re going to check out the other Christmas markets, as well.  I’m hoping I find my perfect Christmas card scene somewhere.