For many people it is the most important celebration of the year: Christmas. With the countdown already on, I spoke with some locals in Tirol to find out what the festive season was like here in Tirol many decades ago, when they themselves were children. Join us on a journey back in time to an period when many things may have been different but the core elements of celebrating Christmas were pretty much the same as they are today.
Agnes Wippler, born 1925, from Zirl
With her friendly smile and quick mind, you would never guess that Agnes Wippler is over 90 years of age. Despite growing up in a time which was anything but easy, she remembers having a childhood full of fun and laughter. Unlike other households in Zirl, Agnes and her family always had enough to eat thanks to the fact that her parents were farmers. As a young girl she helped with the corn harvest and delivered milk in return for 1 Schilling (7 Euro cents). Agnes completed her final school exams in Innsbruck to the sound of wailing sirens warning of an impending bomb attack from the air.
Agnes, what was Christmas like when you were a child?
“During Advent we would go to a traditional Christmas Mass every morning before school. The male choir sang such beautiful carols. There was always a lot of snow.
„On 24 December the door to the living room was locked. But of course we looked through the keyhole!“
My father went and got a Christmas tree from the part of forest that belonged to our family. I remember he would always check in summer to see which one would be best for that year’s Christmas. He would cut down a second tree and take it to the old couple down the road who were no longer able to leave the house to get one of their own. My father would always make sure to hide the tree away from us children by keeping it in the stables until 24 December.
On 24 December the door to the living room was locked. But of course we looked through the keyhole! To be honest, we could never really see what was going on. There was no work done on the farm on 24 December – apart from feeding the animals. We children had to wait patiently in the kitchen, even though we were desperate to go into the living room and see what was there. Then our grandmother would secretly light the candles and ring a bell. That was our sign to come in. The tree was decorated with colourful baubles and lots of tinsel, which my parents had bought from an electric goods store in Zirl. We sang Silent Night together and opened our presents. Normally we would get bits and pieces like socks and gloves. Our grandmother spent the whole year knitting our presents in secret. She was a very kind woman.
Sometimes we would get unusual presents. Once I even received gold earrings. The reason, I found out, was because the optician in Innsbruck recommended wearing earrings as a solution to my watering eyes. Incredibly, it worked. I remember my brother once got a handsome leather satchel. My uncle, who travelled a lot as a postman, got those presents for us. I learned that later when I no longer believed in the Christ Child, who traditionally brings presents to children here in Tirol.
Once we had got out presents, it was time to sit down and eat together. We usually had beef broth with noodles and sausages my father had bought from the local butcher in the village. My father was the local food inspector responsible for meat and also acted as an emergency vet even though he had never been to university. The locals called him the “Angel of the Animals”. Traditions at our house and on the farm included burning incense three times during Advent, including on 24 December. We would heat an old pan with frankincense on the stove. I have no idea where they got the frankincense from! We would then go from room to room with the burning incense, then into the stables. In each room we would say the Lord’s Prayer. My grandmother explained to me that this was to make sure everyone in our family and all the animals stayed healthy. I remember the special atmosphere. It was a beautiful time, especially for us children.”
Gertrud Nagele, born 1933, from Innsbruck
Gertrud grew up with four brothers and sisters in the Höttinger Gasse road in Innsbruck. The building had just one basic toilet, which had to be shared by everyone living there. The house had no running water, so water had to be drawn by hand from a spring behind the building. Gertrud’s grandmother worked at the hospital, where she was responsible for bandaging. Her mother was a seamstress and her father died in the war. The family would receive food stamps with which they could go shopping. There was just one small loaf of bread a day, which was divided up into portions. Gertrud would hide her bit of bread under the bed, because her siblings were always very hungry and would have eaten it up if they had found it.
Tell us about what Christmas was like when you were a child, Gertrud.
“My mother would always make lots of biscuits. We were allowed to help decorate them. These biscuits were then “sent to the Christ Child” so that we didn’t eat them all straight away. Our lodger got a Christmas tree and would always celebrate on 24 December with us. The tree was beautifully decorated with lots of colourful baubles, bells and, of course, plenty of tinsel.
„Christmas always smelt of food.“
On the afternoon of 24 December we children were sent out of the house. We went tobogganing, which was such fun. Back then there was always plenty of snow in the city. We pulled our sleds up to the Hungerburg settlement overlooking the city and then rode all the way down to our front door. Back then there were almost no cars. When we were a little older, we would take the tram up to Hungerburg. It took us a while to walk to the station, but it was less steep than walking up the Höttinger Gasse.
Before we opened our presents we would sing Silent Night. There were always presents for us children. I can remember one in particular: a baby doll with moving arms and legs. It was dressed in clothes which my grandmother had knitted from wool. There was even a spare set of clothing, a skirt and a cardigan. After all, you can’t let your baby doll wear the same things every day, can you! On 24 December we would eat soup with noodles and sausages; on 25 December we normally had duck. We didn’t go to Midnight Mass because my mother didn’t want us kids to be out and about so late in the city. Christmas always smelt of food.”
Meinrad Rendl, born 1931, from Brixlegg
Meinrad lived with his mother and ten brothers and sisters in the village of Mährn near Brixlegg. His father died when Meinrad was ten years old. The family was poor, but they had enough to eat by keeping a few animals and growing their own fruit and vegetables. When Meinrad’s mother learned that a local mother was planning to give up her baby, she offered to take care of the infant. Meinrad’s new little brother was brought home by his sister in a suitcase with holes cut in the sides to let in air. The new addition meant the family was now made up of 12 people. One more mouth to feed? No problem!
Meinrad, can you tell us a bit about what Christmas was like as a child?
“The 24 December was always a very special day. We would burn frankincense in each room of the house and in the stables. My mother made fresh Kiachel, which we would eat with cabbage or beans in the evening before walking through the snow to Midnight Mass. There was something magic in the air. Even today some people talk of ‘Rauhnächte’, the nights around Christmas, when it is said that the door to the other side is open just a little wider than normal. Who knows, maybe it’s true.
There are two experiences I can remember particularly clearly. Once, a few days before Christmas Eve, I secretly searched my parents’ room and found my present. I knew it was mine and I had hoped so much that I would get it. It was a wooden horse with a keyring. Back then I still believed in the Christ Child, and I felt so bad about what I had done. A few days later I couldn’t stand it any longer and told my mother. She was shocked, but she also comforted me. She told me to repeat the Lord’s Prayer a few times, which I did. At the same time I regretted that I had not used the opportunity to grab the wooden horse while I could. Now the Christ Child could come and take it back again! You can’t imagine how relieved I was to find the horse under the Christmas tree.
„In front of the door there was a huge box full of toys. We never found out who donated those presents to our family.“
After my father had died, we normally only got presents which my mother had knitted herself. There was just one exception. It was just after I had stopped believing in the Christ Child. We were all sitting in the living room around the tree decorated with candles and straw stars. I think there was also a bit of tinsel. We were singing Christmas carols such as “Silent Night and “Es wird schon glei dumpa”. All of a sudden we heard a loud bang outside. Nobody moved. After a while we were curious, so we went to take a look. In front of the door there was a huge box full of toys for all of us. We later figured out that the large bang must have been the box being unloaded onto the ground. We never found out who donated those presents to our family. That night I believed in the Christ Child again.”
Maria Karbon, born 1937, from Pankratzberg, Zillertal
Maria was one of seven children. Sadly, three of her brothers died when they were young. Her parents had a farm in Pankratzberg in the Zillertal Valley. It took an hour to walk down into the valley – even longer in winter, unless they used their toboggans.
Maria, tell us about your exprience of Christmas as a child.
“At Christmas my mother did a lot of washing and baked loads and loads of biscuits. She only made one type of biscuit: shortbread. Those which had been in the oven a little bit too long and got a bit too brown were given to us kids to eat straight away. The rest were kept for Christmas. Shortly before Christmas we would slaughter a pig and use everything. We never went hungry. On 24 December we burned frankincense in each room of the house and in the stables. I was sent into the forest to get a Christmas tree. I can still remember it today – I must have been no more than 12 years old. Everyone had to help, and that was my job. The biscuits were laid out on a plate; some were hung from the tree. We also had Kirchtagskrapfen. As well as the biscuits, the tree was also decorated with colourful baubles, lanterns, birds, candles and sweets wrapped in paper. There was a small carved nativity scene on the table.
„The doll disappeared every year shortly before Christmas and then reappeared in new clothes under the Christmas tree. “
The presents were normally thing we could wear, such as Doggln – traditional felt slippers. Our mother had made them in throughout the year in the evenings after we had gone to bed. Only on rare occasions did we children receive toys. Once I got a wooden doll carved by a friend of the family. The doll disappeared every year shortly before Christmas and then reappeared in new clothes under the Christmas tree. I even got a wooden pram to go with my wooden doll. I really loved that. We never sang Christmas carols together because nobody in the family could sing. We would put on our felt slippers and light burning torches to toboggan down into the valley and go to Midnight Mass.”