The smoky scent of a wood fire drifts up and through the open-air walkways of the Kartause, mingling with puffs of mint, eucalyptus, and clove billowing up from a vendor’s essential oil diffuser. Both warm smells are sliced by the cold.
In the courtyard below, visitors gather around the fires which are contained in metal buckets. Almost everyone has a mug in hand. Gluhwein (hot, spiced wine) and gluhmost (hot cider) are the official drinks of a Weihnachtsmarkt.
The Kartause Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) is one of many markets across Europe, particularly in Germanic countries. In Gaming, the market isn’t too big. About six little wooden huts, resembling cottages, are constructed in the main courtyard of the Kartause.
In bigger cities, there could be dozens of these little buildings in a single square, each one filled with a different type of food, drink, or homemade goods.
On the first weekend of Advent, I visited a few of the Christmas markets in Vienna. Each is slightly unique. In Stephansplatz, under the gaze of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the market stands in the middle of one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the city. A more “granoly” market is set up by Karlskirche. The biggest market is by the Rathaus, Vienna’s city hall.
Back in the small village of Gaming, the atmosphere is distinctly local. It seems that everyone’s grandma, aunt, and next-door neighbor spent the previous year preparing things to sell. Knitted hats, bright yellow beeswax candles, quilted tissue box covers, and lots of Christmas ornaments. The vendors take over a few of the classrooms (classes are moved to a different large room on the other side of the Kartause), replacing desks with long tables. In one room, a temporary coffeehouse is set up, complete with cake.
Four men dressed in traditional Austrian lederhosen and playing alphorns interrupt the gentle Christmas music playing in the background. The alphorn looks like an animal horn, but it’s so long that its bell has to rest on the ground. More classical Christmas concerts are performed in the main church throughout the day.
The start of the Weihnachtsmarkt seems to coincide with the start of winter in Austria. For many students, the arrival of snow and the chance to enjoy lebkuchen (decorated gingerbread) carries with it the reminder that this season of life is ending. There aren’t many who say they don’t miss home, but when asked if they want to leave, there’s often a pause.
“I want everyone to come here,” they say.
There’s a certain magic of arriving in Gaming in the fall and seeing the Kartause, with its white walls and red roof against the bright green hills, for the first time. That magic continues throughout the semester, a bit muted, but always there; in the way fog settles around the pine trees in the morning, or how the air glows in the late afternoon sun. With the arrival of snow, students savor that magic one last time before they’re buried in finals, room cleaning, and hugging goodbye.
For me, the pain of leaving is not as sharp as it is for most students; unlike them, I’ll be returning to Gaming in the spring. So, I’m looking back two years to remember what I felt as a junior leaving one of the most transforming semesters of my life.
I knew I had been changed, but I wasn’t quite sure how. I realized that I owed a lot to the environment of the semester, daily Mass, the focus of classwork, and the personal commitment of those around me. In the Kartause, that environment comes easily—sometimes jostling with the excitement of travel. But overall, a sense of personal growth permeates the semester.
Leaving that first time, I had a choice. I could leave all that I gone through, all the ways I had grown, all the good habits I had formed, abandon in Austria—chained to the place and experience that had brought them about.
Or, I could pack them in my suitcase, right between 17 bars of chocolate and a funky tapestry I picked up in Barcelona, and carry them back home.
Advent is like a semester in Austria. It’s an intense time of growth (if one makes the commitment to make it so) and can sometimes be forgotten when the magic of the newness wears off. As the semester is ending for students, warmth is fleeing all across the northern hemisphere. The year goes through a type of death, but there is also newness of life.
Advent brings in the new liturgical year. A baby is born in Bethlehem. A semester in Austria—or any growing experience—is a beginning. Students in Gaming might relieve their Austrian semester by beginning with “Once upon a time in Austria…,” but Catholics everywhere can start a similar story: “Once upon a time in Advent…”