A 19th-Century Austrian Christmas

In 1836, English writer Frances Trollope visited Austria, accompanied by her 26-year-old son Thomas and her 20-year-old daughter Cecilia. She provided the following description of Christmas in Vienna, including a party at the home of Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Clemens von Metternich, who appears in Napoleon in America.

A 19th-Century Austrian Christmas

Christmas Morning, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1844

Preparations: Sugar plums and Christmas trees

“A more than usual degree of animation has pervaded the whole town for some days past, occasioned by the preparations making to celebrate Christmas.

“The shops are vying with each other which shall display the most tempting assortment of articles in their different lines; and though the more extensive elbow-room of London and Paris permits of larger shops and show-rooms, they can display nothing more brilliant and more beautiful that what may be seen here.

“In the important matters of shawls, blonds, velvets, silks, satins, and so forth, it is quite impossible that they should be surpassed. The silversmiths and jewellers certainly exceed in their rich exhibitions those either of France or England, with the exception, perhaps, of the interior arcana of Rundel and Bridges, and of Hamlets. The show of ornamental glass is exquisitely and delicately beautiful, and might almost make one fancy oneself within the domain of some enchanter, so bright, so tasteful, and so fanciful, in colour and in form, are the productions of the Bohemian manufactories.

“The windows of the confectioners do not indeed exhibit, as with us, plum-cakes majestic in their grandiose proportions and splendid ornaments; but, in revenge, they become magazines of bon-bons that dazzle the eyes as you enter among them, for they sparkle like grottos with a thousand crystals. The art of working in sugar was never carried, even in Paris, to greater perfection than it is here. You may find yourself eating all the fruits of the earth, whether in or out of season, while believing that you are only about to make your way through a sugar-plum.

“They are, beyond all contradiction, the prettiest-looking comestibles in the world: nevertheless, were I a Vienna lady, I would never permit the elegant pyramidical tray charged with them to travel round and round at my parties; for as each one is enclosed in a little dainty dish of scolloped paper, that it may reach the mouth without soiling the gloves, the consequence is that the purity of the drawing-room carpets must inevitably suffer; for it is not uncommon, after two or three entries of refreshments, to see the floor perfectly strewed with these sugar-plum cases.

“But all these extra preparations for enjoyment are by no means confined to the wealthier classes. At the corner of every street we see customers of quite the lower orders bargaining for trees, adorned with knots of many-coloured paper, in order to celebrate the Christmas. These trees, which, I believe, are always spruce-firs, are provided of every variety of degree, as to size and expense, by nearly every family in Vienna where there are young people.

“Nor is the custom peculiar to the capital; not a cottage in Austria, I am told, but has something of the same kind to solemnize this joyous season. The tree is called ‘the tree of the little Jesus;’ and on its branches are suspended all sorts of pretty toys, bijous, and bon-bons, to be distributed among those who are present at the fête. On the trees that are offered for sale in the streets, the place of more costly presents is supplied with an apple or a raisin, a chestnut, or a bit of gingerbread: but still they all show a gay and gala aspect to the eye, with their floating paper ribbons; and I have watched as much happy interest in the countenance of a poor body, while balancing between boughs that waved with streamers of pink, and others where blue predominated, as the richest lady could have felt, while selecting the most elegant and costly offerings for her friends.

“At some houses the tree is exhibited on Christmas-eve, which is to-night; and in others the fête is held tomorrow. For the first we are invited by the Princess Metternich [Melanie Zichy-Ferraris], who means to make a set of little princes and princesses superlatively happy.” (1)

Christmas Eve at the Metternichs

“One of the perfections of the Viennese parties is, that they are very punctual to the hour named for them; this is a good habit that I fear we did not bring with us, for we have very frequently found ourselves too late upon occasions when the being so has brought with it real loss. So it was on Christmas-eve. By fearing to arrive too early, we missed seeing the first happy rush of the children when the signal was given that the tree was lighted. We reached the scene of action, however, at the moment when everything connected with the pretty ceremony was in full activity.

“The large round dining-table was placed in the centre of the great saloon, and on it stood a fir-tree reaching almost to the lofty ceiling, on the branches of which were fastened a multitude of little waxen lights, such as the devout decorate their favourite shrines withal. Above, around, and underneath this sparkling galaxy of little stars, hung, suspended by dainty knots of various-coloured ribbons, an innumerable quantity of bon-bons and other pretty things which glittered in their rays. To disentangle these, and distribute them to the company, was to be the concluding ceremony; but, meanwhile, a beautiful circle of young faces, radiant with delight, stood round the ample table, one moment gazing at the twinkling brightness of the rich tree, and the next called upon to receive, with rapture greater still, each one a present from the abounding collection of toys that either covered the table or were ranged round it.

“The moment after, the animation of the scene became greater still. Here, a huge rocking-horse was put into violent motion by its happy new possessor; there, a game of rolling balls and tumbling nine-pins was set in action. On one side, a princely little coachman, in full Jehu costume, made his whip crack over the heads of his wooden steeds; and, on the other, a lovely little girl was making acquaintance with a splendid doll. Tiny tea-things, and tiny dinner-trays, miniature cabinets, and miniature libraries, and a world of things besides, more than I have wit to remember or rehearse, were speedily distributed, and appropriated among as happy a set of pretty creatures as ever bloomed and sparkled on a Christmas-eve.

“Nor was the beautiful mistress of the fête the least charming object among them. There are some people who, when they give pleasure, seem to find themselves in the element that is native to them, and to awaken within it to a keener feeling of life and enjoyment than in any other. The Princess Metternich is one of these, and I know from excellent authority that it is not only on a jour de fête that she shows it. …

“Many very elegant gifts were presented by the princess to those around her. No one present was forgotten; and the pretty album that she gave to me was doubly welcome, — first, as being her gift, and, secondly, as giving me a fair excuse for asking autographs which would make a less elegant volume valuable.

“After the table had been cleared of its many and varied treasures, the tree was, not without some difficulty, made to descend to the floor; and then, by the aid of sundry tall serving-men, the bon-bons were withdrawn from the illuminated branches, and distributed among the dancing, shouting, little host that stood ready to receive them. While I was admiring the brightness and ingenious decoration of the tree, the princess said to me, ‘The porter has just such another in his lodge, and depend upon it he has a circle round it just as happy as mine.’

“From this very animating scene we proceeded to another, not quite of the same kind, because no children were present at it; but where the same joyous occasion was made use of as an opportunity for indulging a liberal and affectionate spirit. The Baronne de P. assembles round her, upon this pretty solemnity, all her numerous family and connexions; and, I believe, we were the only persons present who were not of her regular annual party; an exception in favour of strangers which furnishes one example out of many of the manner in which kindness is extended to them in Vienna.

“We arrived in time to partake the tea and coffee that preceded the apparition of the tree, which was as yet invisible; but when this was over, at a signal given, the folding-doors of another apartment were thrown open, and lo! . . . . not one tree only, but five, shed their light, and glittered their brightly laden branches over a range of tables entirely covered with “Friendship’s Offerings.” I do not mean exactly that the tables bore a whole edition of the elegant little book so called; though annuals, and English ones too, made a part of the collection. No person present there but found their name inscribed on something. And now I received a very pretty toy, and a very acceptable one, being no other than a model of one of these ‘trees of the little Jesus,’ to which I shall certainly give my very best packing, in the hope of taking it home safely as a pattern. As soon as the trees themselves had been dismantled of their sugar-plums, the party returned to the other drawing-rooms, and spent the remainder of the evening in chatting and eating ices, in the manner of all other soirees.” (2)

Christmas Day

“We did not go to church, because we had no church [of England] to go to; but we ate roast beef and plum-pudding at home, and in the evening went to a very pretty party at the house of Baron von S. where again we witnessed the liberal and affectionate ceremonies of the tree, and again found our names inscribed with a kindness that was far beyond mere courtesy on elegant little souvenirs, rendered precious by being the work of the fair giver.

“The weather on this night was rough and chilling in no ordinary degree, or I should have been tempted to withdraw rather earlier than we did from the pleasant hospitality that surrounded us, for the purpose of hearing the midnight mass at St. Stephen’s.

“But I feared the cold damp of the church at such an hour; and the more so, as I had been repeatedly admonished that there would be no possibility of reaching the more sheltered part of the building, or of obtaining a seat at all, inasmuch as the crowd that assembled to share in this solemn and impressive service always collected some hours before it began. And so we passed our Christmas-day without entering a church at all.” (3)

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas.

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  1. Frances Trollope, Vienna and the Austrians, Vol. II (London: Richard Bentley, 1838), pp. 108-111.
  2. Ibid., pp. 119-123.
  3. Ibid., pp. 124-125.

4 commments on “A 19th-Century Austrian Christmas”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    A very lovely and enjoyable description of Christmas in those days. Christmas has always been a very important event in Austria.
    Frances Trollope’s descriptions about Austria in those days are very interesting to read, she travelled extensively and wrote about everything she encountered in a very graphic way.
    One of the adventurous English ladies that have left very interesting descriptions of life, society and customs in days gone by, just like Lady Montague before her.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Irene. I’m glad you liked the post. I thoroughly enjoy reading Frances Trollope’s books. As you say, her descriptions of the places, people and situations she encountered in her travels are detailed and entertaining. They provide a welcome first-hand glimpse into life during that period.

  • John Adan says:

    Today the little Austria is thriving again, thanks to education and technology, both in the industry and in agriculture, even without the resources of the huge former Empire. After Waterloo Austria took over the Adriatic Sea and and joined the global maritime trade network in the footsteps of the Venetian Republic, connected with the World via Bosporus, Gibraltar and Suez Canal by the free port Trieste, enabling universal free trade, like the European Union does on a bigger scale today. After Waterloo the golden age of prosperity lasted for 100 years while Britannia ruled the waves. Then corruption and greed brought on WW 1 and WW 2, where Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler tried to suffocate British trade with the submarine warfare. Just like the Continental System, where the French Empire tried to break England with a trade blockade that also failed in the first place already, showing the futility of such efforts. Nobody learned anything. Most of the monarchies were destroyed, along with the colonial system, a trend started by the American revolution, heavily sponsored by France, in her competition with England. After 1945 the European Union developed into the modern free trade system open to everyone. How long will this last, God only knows. Let us enjoy the stock market, where everyone can make a decent living, with some focus, discipline and patience, with annual returns of 20%, 30% or even more, with the intel provided by The Motley Fool Stock Advisor. 5 stocks every month; some of the stocks multiplied 10 times or more in 10 years. Posted 12 of them on Facebook to show what can be done for the benefit of our Planet. No more need for lying, stealing and killing for a living. The roaring twenties are coming back now, perhaps for the next 10 years. While waiting for the Covid-19 vaccine, you may protect yourselves by Vitamin D 6,000 Units daily, with Zinc. Endorsed by Loma Linda University.

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The large round dining-table was placed in the centre of the great saloon, and on it stood a fir-tree reaching almost to the lofty ceiling, on the branches of which were fastened a multitude of little waxen lights.

Frances Trollope