I know that lately the posts are all about various times in Austria, there is a good reason for that. I lived there for a number of years and I have a lot of amazing memories from there but it was the Christmas season when things got special, and every year around this time I get a little bit homesick for my castle home.
We lived miles away from family, I couldn’t just go home for the holidays without a lot of cash and even if I wanted too, the castle life got really busy around Christmas and it was all hands on deck. I remember my first Christmas there I was really miserable thinking about my first Christmas away from my family, I was so homesick that it hurt. Then Christmas eve came, and we gathered in the courtyard to drink Gluwein and eat krapfen, there always seemed to be so much snow and we would then walk through the walk for baby Jesus (a pageant of sorts that took us from the gates of the castle and ended at the neighbours barn). After that we exchanged gifts which weren’t really anything more than a chocolate bar or maybe a handmade gift as money for us was ALWAYS tight. On Christmas morning we had a service and then we usually ended up spending the afternoon doing some outdoor activity like snowboarding or hiking to Christina’s (a small little restaurant in the mountains with the very best Austrian baked goods).
It wasn’t about the gifts, it was about the people, and the small traditions that can’t be replaced here no matter how hard some of us have tried. You just can’t re-create the walk for baby Jesus, and no pageant will ever really be the same once you have ended in a smelly old barn, gathered together with both the cows, pigs and friends.
However, possibly my favourite part of Christmas eve in that small village nestled in the Austrian valley was that one of the families from the village goes up the mountain every year and they light giant bonfires, a lot of them, and if you stand on the hill on our side of the valley, or on the castle wall, you can see the flames start, first one and then slowly all the rest until eventually they are all lit and you can see the word JESUS blazing across the side of the mountain. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, taking us to the heart of what Christmas is about.
This year so many of us are separated from loved ones, traditions are being put on hold, churches are closed, gifts will be hard to come by and money is tight for most of us… this year more than most I am brought back to those years when I stood on a hill in the snow staring across the valley at the fires that burned the meaning of Christmas into my heart forever. Jesus. It just doesn’t have to be miserable, as I thought it would be that first year away from home, it’s not about anything more than remembering who you are here to celebrate and making some new traditions that we may actually come to love just as much as the old ones.