A Comparative Analysis

We have now reached the portion of this project where we analyze and compare the celebrations of Christmas by Austrians and Italians. Both cultures embrace Christmas and what it means to their individual culture, but what does that mean? We have several important questions to ask in order to find out. First, how and why is Christmas in Italy different from Christmas in Austria? From my interviews, I can say that one of the biggest differences is the incorporation of religion. The woman I interviewed in Austria told me that she is agnostic and doesn’t personally celebrate Christmas. She also said that not many people are regular church-goers but some will attend a Christmas service. However, the woman in Italy said that the birth of Jesus is a big reason why Italians celebrate Christmas. This makes sense if we look at the statistics: 76% of people in Austria practice a religion whereas 88% of people in Italy practice a religion. Of those religious people, 59% of Austrians are Roman Catholic while 81% of Italians are Roman Catholic (Wikipedia). Catholicism has a big impact on the religiosity of Christmas in both countries because Christmas is largely associated with being a Christian holiday, no matter how much one secularizes it. There are plenty of people in Austria and Italy who are not religious but celebrate Christmas one way or another. Some see it primarily as a time to exchange gifts, eat good food, and spend time with loved ones.

Of course, the details of Christmas in each country is also different. Austrian tradition says that the Christkind (a baby with wings who symbolizes baby Jesus) or St. Nicholas delivers presents to well-behaved children; whereas Italian tradition says that it’s Father Christmas, Jesus himself, or La Befana who leaves the treasures under the tree. In any case, I find it interesting that both cultures incorporate some version or concept of a newborn Christ. Even non-religious families in Austria may have gifts “delivered” by the Christkind.  Another aspect of similarity and difference is the food served in honor of the big occasion. Austria and Italy both have foods and drinks that are reserved for the Christmas season: gingerbread and mulled wine in Austria, panettone and vin brulè in Italy. 

We also need to address the role of family in Austrian and Italian celebrations of Christmas. Family is a huge part of Italian culture, particularly in the south. Family goes along with the value Italians place on tradition. “[Valued group customs and traditions] often take the form of religious rites, beliefs, and norms of behavior” (Schwartz, 6). Family, tradition, and religion are all related and work together to make the Italian Christmas what it is for an Italian. Southern Italy is also known for being less individualistic than the north, which could explain how a Christmas in the south would feel warmer or more family-oriented than in the north (Hofstede). Family is important for many people in Austria as well. People want to gather with loved ones to celebrate, whether they celebrate Christmas or celebrate time spent together with family and friends. Gathering around a table of good food with good people is a way many different cultures celebrate Christmas.

Our next question is what’s the big deal? Why is this important to talk about? The Christmas season is one of those times of the year that matters for a lot people, myself included. As a valuable component of our culture (and Hall does say that culture affects everything), we should embrace the similarities and differences it has with our own cultural experience of Christmas. It’s also the Christmas season now, so it’s a great time to study this area of culture. I know that I’ve learned a lot about Christmas in Austria and Italy, and I’m excited to incorporate some of their traditions into my own this year!