Austrian Traditions III:
Customs & Events in the Annual Cycle
November (the same in German: "November")
The 1st of November is "All Soul′s Night", graves are decorated with flowers and candles and different regions in Austria have customs in which godparents make symbolic gifts to their godchildren.
The 11th of November is St. Martin′s Day, on which little children walk in processions with self-made lanterns and sing certain songs. Back in the days, farmers were taxed on this day and had to give parts of their harvest away. This was often done with geese, and today it is still a custom to eat goose with Blaukraut and bread dumpling (Serviettenknödel). In Eastern Austria, the Wine of the running year is formally introduced to the "Heurigen" and starts being sold. It′s a good day to spend in a wine hall, there will be much singing and drinking.
The last month of the year is of course dominated by the customs and traditions of related to advent and Christmas. In the Ausseerland of the Salzkammergut, the "Glöckler" tour from door to door similar to the way they do in January. They sing, dance and do their pagan poetry, mostly for local farmers.
Normally already starting in late November, Christmas Markets are held in many communities all over Austria. They work best with snow, since a rainy day can make the most traditional market a miserable place. Good markets sell only crafts, food and traditional items, not-so-good ones sell everything tacky and cheap. Most big communities and cities with historic centres tend to keep a watchful eye on their markets and insist on keeping them clean of rubbish items. Try Glühwein, Maroni (roasted chestnuts) or my personal favourite, "Gebrannte Mandeln" (caramelised, roasted almonds with a hint of cinnamon).
The 4th of December is St. Barbara′s Day. She is the patron saint of miners and the few that are left celebrate with traditional gatherings and festivals. Students of geology throw parties, as for some bizarre reason that I never fully understood, they feel related to miners; in any case, these parties are not of the traditional kind, so just forget that I mentioned them.
Memories of undergrad days in Salzburg…anyway, there is actually a proper custom for St. Barbara′s Day common in Austria. People cut branches of cherry trees and put them into a jug of water. It is said that if they cusp and bloom by Christmas, it means good luck and health for the coming year. And that global warming is proceeding.
The 5th of December is the "Krampustag". The word Krampus is derived from the mid-High German word for claw - this is the day on which young man dress up in fur, devil′s masks and get oxen tails and bundles of branches as weapons. In the area of Eastern Tyrol, Salzburg and Bavaria, the Perchten organise processions, so-called "Perchtenläufe". Perchten symbolise pagan spirits and their archaic rituals are not only scary to watch, but also spectacular performances. One of the biggest Perchtenläufe is normally held in Henndorf (north of Salzburg), others take place in Salzburg itself and more traditional events around the 21st of December in the alpine, southern districts of Salzburg.
The 6th of December is St. Nicholas′ Day. He is the Austrian counterpart to Santa Claus, but in fact not in charge with Christmas presents. Santa is everywhere these days for the sake of a commercialised, secular Christmas - however, traditionally the "Christkind" (an abstract blend of angle and child) delivers the presents in Austria. St. Nicholas comes on the 6th, looks like a bishop (that′s what St. Nicholas was, not a soda-boozing, obese, red-cheeked Rockwell-icon) and goes to the children′s houses. Sometimes he is accompanied by a Krampus that he can order to punish the naughty kids in a good-cop / bad-cop manner. St Nicholas traditionally brings small gifts, like fruits, nuts and some sweets. The big presents come for Christmas.
The 8th of December is "Maria Empfängnis" and used to be a bank holiday. These days, shops are open to accommodate the Christmas-shopping needs of Austria′s masses. Under any circumstances, avoid shops on this day! People in alpine areas used to carry pictures, paintings or statues of the Virgin Mary through the village and sing in this procession. This is rarely done these days anymore.
During advent (the four weeks before Christmas), most Austrians set up an "Adventskranz": This is a wreath of fir branches with four candles on it. Every Sunday, another of these candles is lit, so that by Christmas all four are shining. Nativity Scenes ("Krippen") are big in Austria, too. They are often set in alpine style: the Holy Family in a cabin built in the same way as peasants used to know them. Look inside churches and you will find very large nativity scenes with huge model landscapes. Most of them are from the 19th century, but some churches are lucky enough to own Nativity Scenes that are centuries old.
Christmas Eve (24th of December) is probably more important in Austria than Christmas Day. Shops will typically close at noon or in the early afternoon. Lent officially ends after the "Mette" or "Christmette" (night service) which normally ends at candlelight with the singing of "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), the king of the Christmas Carols. Christmas is traditionally celebrated with the family. Presents are given under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and not on the 25th like in many other countries.
The 25th (Christmas Day) and 26th (Boxing Day, St. Stephen′s Day) of December are public holidays. Most Austrians will tour increasingly distant relatives, eat a lot and exchange presents of decreasing usefulness.
New Year′s Eve is called "Silvester" in Austria, since the 31st of December is the day of St. Sylvester. It is typically celebrated at parties and with large-scale fireworks at midnight to welcome the New Year. People will dance waltz and drink sparkling wine or Champaign, typically already in a state that will keep them from being able to tell a difference. If you want to spend New Year′s Eve in Austria, be aware of the noise level that firecrackers (and the Italian tourists that are responsible for most of them, at least in Salzburg) generate. If you want to eat out, it is necessary to book well in advance.
back to "activities"
Festivals & Events elsewhere in Austria
Heimatwerk Austria (preserves folk culture)
Ministery for Education, Culture and Science (includes folk culture)
Austrian Tourism Council for current events