Austrian Traditions I:
Customs & Events in the Annual Cycle

Old traditions kept young: Folk culture in Austria beyond tourist entertainment

Think of Austria, and - at least as a foreigner - you will think of Lederhosen, traditional Dirndl dress and the Alps. Today′s tourism Mafia has done little to change about this thinking, and so the international image of Austria is a rather romantic one. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that there are many traditions and customs in my country that are ancient, yet active part of the everyday life in Austria.

Traditional clothing worn by some hicks from Alpine regions of Austria

Being thoroughly Catholic for many centuries, Austrians have developed a strong sense for celebrations, rituals and symbolism. This is reflected in the many holidays and festivals that are held in an annual cycle. Don′t be afraid to join the crowds - like almost anything in Austria, most traditional customs (with the exception of purely religious actions) actively endorse tourism and welcome international visitors!

Outside of Vienna, Austria is a fairly rural place with traditionally small communities that were often resistant against cultural change. Therefore, many ancient traditions and customs have survived. Some of these are said to date back to Celtic or Roman times, others were introduced by Bavarian and Slavic people. Once Austria was Christian the church implemented old customs into its own mythology and thereby ensured the tradition and preservation of them. What many people today perceive as a festival of a saint might actually be derived from a worshipping ritual of a pagan goddess.

January ("Jänner")

The new year in Austria begins with the so-called "Neujahrsschießen" (New Year′s Salute). Squads of historical rifle associations (well, at least referring to historical associations with their uniforms; drinking societies in any case) gather in traditional costumes in many cities all over the country. They line up in rows and shoot, often with massive, 17th-century style guns. If you are willing to get up on the first of January, this is worth watching.

In the "Wiener Musikverein" ("Vienna Music Club"), the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) play what is probably the World′s most famous and most widely followed annual concert, the "Neujahrskonzert".

Glöckler in the Ausseerland - sadly with no sound.

On the 5th of January, the "Glöckler" walk from one door to another in the Salzkammergut. This is proper pagan-action and spectacular to watch. They are young men dressed up in white trousers and dress with large crest-hat decorations that are lit up from the inside. The "Glöckler" have bells on their belts and joints and perform dances. This was traditionally done to wake the seed in the soil and nature′s spirits. I can′t think of a justification the Catholic Church might have found for continuing with it, but pagan or not, it looks great.

Around the 6th of January (The festival of the Twelfth Night, Epiphany), the "Sternsinger" ("star singers", Epiphany) walk from door to door in all villages and towns of Austria. They normally consist of four children (three kings and a star-person) and an adult to accompany them. They sing a little song about how they are really excited that Jesus was born, bless the house and its inhabitants for the new year and collect a bit of money for a charity, which changes every year. The custom is organised by the "Jungschar", a Catholic youth organisation.

The 6th of January is also one of the "Raunächte", in which Perchten are gathering for nightly rituals in Bavaria, Salzburg, Eastern Tyrol and the Salzkammergut. These traditions are all concerned with fertility rites and the winter Sonnenwende (21st of December). For details, see "December".

February ("Februar")

February is dominated by the peak of the ball season in Austria. The "national" ball, sometimes called the "Ball der Republik" (ball of the republic") is the famous Wiener Opernball (Vienna Opera Ball). This is a great opportunity for Austria rich, famous and wannabes to show their wealth, smiles and trophywives. The president, chancellor and most of the government normally waltz at the ball and there is a great deal of media attention from around the World dedicated to the opera that night.

Similarly traditional is the "Opernballdemo", a demonstration of left-wing activists opposing the decadence and bourgeois culture of the Opernball. In recent years it became obvious that the whole revolution thing probably won′t work out and the demonstrations have faded. A pity, I say, as they were a much more interesting element of the event than Vienna′s high-society.

The Opernball is definitely not the only ball of Austria. Balls and Rendoutes in mask or without, formal dress of various degrees, parties and gatherings are popular anywhere in Austria, with formal highlights in Vienna and Salzburg, so a lesser degree in Graz and Innsbruck. Universities, societies and clubs, charity organisations, dance schools or political parties organise annual balls.

The "second" ball after the Opernball is probably the "Life Ball" that was founded a few years ago in the sake of HIV and Aids charities. It was particularly popular with the gay scene, although gradually all kinds of anti-establishment-ball fans have contributed to the event′s popularity. Celebrities have their share in making the "Life Ball" tickets harder to get than those for the Opernball.

An interesting feature of balls are the young people giving their "debut": especially balls organised by the big dancing schools are opened with a dance by young people (typically between 16 and 18 years old) that are formally introduced (or initiated) to society. This traditionally marks the end of their dance and etiquette training and is still a big deal for many girls, not so much the male part of Austria.

The peak of the ball season coincides with Fasching ("carnival"), the period of celebrations and party before the Easter Lent. The two most important days are Faschingssamstag (the Saturday before Ash Wednesday) and Faschingsdienstag (Mardi Gras). Children will dress up in costumes and teenagers or adults go to fancy dress parties. In small communities, there are parades and processions.

This wild face of Faschings is most excessively celebrated in Villach and nearby areas in Carinthia. If you travel to Austria around this time of the year, consider to go to Venice in Italy for a stop-over of a day or two, where Fasching is celebrated in its own, very special way. Fasching ends when lent starts: Ash Wednesday.

Another February Tradition is the Aperschnalzen in Salzburg and Bavaria: Young men in Lederhosen gather in uneven numbers and use large whips to create loud sounds. They are meant to awake the seed in the soil and call good spirits to chase the snow away. Aperschnalzen is today often held in a competitive manner, the event in Wals near Salzburg is probably the most famous one.

March & April ("März & April")

After forty days of lent (try the traditional lent beer "Osterbock"), Easter takes place. Many customs of the Easter festival are still more religious than the rather commercialised Christmas. On Palm Sunday, people in rural communities take bouquets made of seven different weeds, each with its own symbolism, attached to a stick to church. Together with foods the bouquets, called Palmbuschen, receive good blessings. They are meant to symbolise Christ′s arrival in Jerusalem. They are later placed on fields to protect the crops, where they stay normally until they rot (blessed items are traditionally not thrown away in Austria).

There are many different customs with regional significance held in Austria in the week that follows. Passion plays are organised in some communities. Eggs are painted and decorated. Branches of fruit trees (mostly cherry) or bushes are cut and decorated with eggs or Easter ornaments. Most families paint or stain eggs - they are then knocked against each other in a competitive manner ("Eierpecken").

Church bells are not in use from Green Thursday until the resurrection service in Easter Night (Saturday). Traditionally, children are told that they have flown to Rome. Minister boys walk from door to door and make noises with wooden instruments called "Ratschen" instead. During Easter Night, many communities burn large stacks of woods in bonfires, which is derived from pagan traditions.

The 23rd of April is St. George′s Day, the patron of horses. This day was traditionally significant for farmers, who often relied on the power of horses. In some areas of Austria, riders are coming together for services or "Georgiritt" processions in historic costumes with a man playing St. George.

Traditions around the Year: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

back to "activities"

Festivals & Events elsewhere in Austria

Vorarlberg - Tyrol (Tirol) - Salzburg - Upper Austria (Oberösterreich) - Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) - Vienna - Carinthia (Kärnten) - Styria - Burgenland

Further Reading

Heimatwerk Austria (preserves folk culture)

Ministery for Education, Culture and Science (includes folk culture)

Austrian Tourism Council for current events