Christmastime in an Austrian postcard village may just be the most magical experience in the world. Between the toy-like knickknacks sold at every streetcorner’s Christmas markets, the plush December snowfalls, the eerie Krampus parades, the endless seasonal sweets that make an already-obsessive coffee/cake culture seem lacking, and the strange German words (i.e. Burgermeister Meisterburger) that play like a jingle in my head as I am constantly lost in translation of the language, I truly feel as though I’m stuck in a frighteningly cute animagic film.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing holiday habit here is the ubiquitous consumption of Glühwein, or the warm spiced wine that we call mulled wine in the states. However, this European holiday varietal is distinct from anything that I’ve experienced in my half-century of American Christmases because it’s enjoyed outside. In the freezing cold. When there is snow on the ground and icicles on the high raised communal tables.
As soon as the first frost of November came, I noticed on my grocery store strolls that Glühwein stands began popping up overnight. I walked by with my jaw unhinged, aghast and staring dumbfounded at the locals who spent their nights chatting casually with a cigarette in one hand and a mug of steaming wine in the other. My American sensibilities were not only shocked in spirit of our public liquor restrictions, but because I could not wrap my head around why anyone would possibly voluntarily spend time in the suburban outdoors in the peak of winter. Of course, I couldn’t actually voice such a likely-naïve scrutiny of Austrian peculiarities because I would undoubtedly be met with a swift rebuttal along the lines of, “Why do Austrians drink outside?! First tell me, why did Americans elect Trump?!” Point taken. I have learned from constant political questioning that U.S. passport-holders have no room in Europe to make cultural inquiries these days. So since I could not beat them, I decided to join them.
I’ve gathered that Glühwein is great for any cold day, but it is best consumed when surrounded by infinite amounts of Christmas cheer. I did not truly appreciate the lush libation until the first evening of advent, when I was drawn out of the cocoon of my warm apartment by the flood of muffled tunes from a town festival. I arrived into our community circle of Christmas stands in pajamas, on an empty stomach, and utterly unprepared for what I was about to witness.
I headed straight for the Glühwein stand, pooling together my 5 cent pieces for enough for a single mug. I stood sipping my sultry liquid as I watched a middle-aged couple waltz to an Austrian man singing Mariah Carey. Smoke encircled my head like a festive juniper berry trail wreath. I tried to jovially ignore the cigarette ash that fell like a snowflake into my drink and the fact that I had lost feeling in my face. Suddenly, the tune changed to what I thought to be the national anthem, and a crowd of locals circled up to join arms and proclaim their heritage aloud in song.
“I bin die feine Mischung, Special Blend Solche wie mich, weißt d'wie man die nennt I bin die wilde Sorte, da werd'n Braune bleich I bin aus Österreich…”
I watched with wide eyes, not knowing whether to laugh, to join in, or to run madly from the outlandishly adorable display of patriotism. So instead, I simply nodded, smiled, drank another sip of Glühwein, and sang quietly to myself a broken jovial phrase that would make little sense to me in just an hour’s, but at that at that moment of Glühwein-induced Christmas spirit rang unquestionably true: “I bin aus Österreich…” And I felt the lyrics’ meaning in the flutter of my heart that beat wildly for my Glühwein. I too am Austrian.