Folk Customs/ December

This month is characterized by customs and events of the Advent and Christmas seasons, both consisting of private and public elements. Though publications on Advent and Christmas usually stress the family aspect which also colors the image of these feasts, the public side should neither be overlooked nor underestimated.

Much can he seen and heard in the streets, for example special Christmas illuminations and seasonal arrangements in the shop windows, many figures disguised as Santa Claus, Christmas carols, songs and music, official large Christmas trees "for everybody" (in front of the Viennese City Hall as well as in many squares) and smaller trees with electric candles in front gardens and on balconies. Christmas markets and exhibitions of Christmas cribs are crowded with visitors (many children among them) during the whole Advent season. The traditional Christmas market of Vienna has been situated on the Rathausplatz (City Hall Square) since 1975, a special programme being organized in the City Hall itself. Smaller Christmas markets add to the atmosphere of the season in all city districts. Worth visiting are the Spittelberg market in Vienna and the market on the Färberplatz in Graz (both specializing in arts and crafts), and the market on the Freyung (Vienna) in front of the Schottenkirche ("Scottish Church", the church being named after Irish missionaries who were called "Scots").

The "Grafenegger Advent" at Grafenegg Castle (Lower Austria) combines an Advent or Christmas market with various special events and surely is of supra-regional importance. This is also assisted by the ORF (the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation), which is involved in the organization of this event.


Christmas Crib Plays And Exhibitions

From the first Sunday in Advent until Candlemas (February 2nd) the "Steyrer Kripperl" (Christmas Crib of Steyr, a town in Upper Austria) can be visited. Such a crib is first mentioned here in 1579. Today it is almost the last marionette-theatre where staff- puppets are used. The play contains many scenes dealing with the folklife of Steyr, and the visitor gets a good idea of what daily life was like in former times.

During the Advent season a Christmas play is also performed at Traismauer (Lower Austria). The text of the play dates back to 1810 (and includes some older parts). At least three persons are necessary for handling the marionettes. There is also a choir involved in the performance. The play consists of nine scenes which reflect to a certain extent the folklife of Lower Austria.

In the first two weeks of December, an exhibition of Christmas cribs is arranged in the crypt of St. Peter's in the Inner City of Vienna. Old and new cribs are on exhibition, the new ones being the result of the efforts of the "Society of the Friends of the Christmas Crib" which encourages people to make their own cribs.

A "real" Christmas play is performed every fourth year at Bad Ischl (Upper Austria); the last performances were in the season 1991/92. This play is part of the tradition that was cultivated at the monasteries of Lambach and Kremsmünster, and was encouraged and stimulated by the Jesuits of Traunkirchen.

The people in the Salzkammergut (Styria and Upper Austria) are especially fond of themes connected with Christmas, a predilection reflected in the great number of Christmas carols and shepherd songs, in the production of Christmas cribs (by carving) and in looking at the many cribs displayed in the churches, and in many private houses as well, between December 24th and Candlemas (February 2nd). Every visitor is welcome, and should especially try Ebensee, Bad lschl and Hallstatt for private cribs, and the parish church of Bad Ischl and the cathedral of Linz for church cribs.

Looking at Christmas cribs in private houses has a long tradition in the Tyrol, too, especially in the so-called "Krippendorfer" ("crib-villages") of Thaur, Rum, Zirl, and Götzens. This special developement is connected with EmperorJoseph II, who prohibited the setting up of Christmas cribs in the churches. When the situation changed, the private tradition continued.


Barbara, Patron Of The Miners

There are some outstanding customs in the Advent season, especially connected with December 4th (St. Barbara) and December 6th (St. Nicholas). St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and similar professional groups. Most of the bigger mining companies organize Barbara ceremonies. At the "Erdölpfarre" ("petrol parish") of Mazen (Lower Austria) a big Barbara ceremony is held on the first Sunday in Advent (since the 1950’s) sponsored by the ÖMV (Austrian Petrol Company), including holy mass, promenade concerts of the company band, etc. At the Montanuniversität (University for Mining) at Leoben (Styria), the custom of the "Ledersprung" (jumping over the leather) is carried out on the Sunday nearest to December 4th, the feast of St. Barbara. This jumping over the leather (the leather was part of the traditional working outfit of the miner) represents an essential part of mining customs, and can be traced back to the 16th century.

Customs connected with St. Nicholas are performed on the eve of his feast. On the evening of December 5th, the holy bishop and his companions appear either in the old way (on foot and in small groups) or in more modern processions (and often on trucks and with many more masked figures, for example at Laxenburg, Laa an der Thaya and Wolkersdorf, Lower Austria, or at lnnsbruck-Hötting in the Tyrol). These big public processions are recent developments, probably influenced by the Nicholas traditions of the Netherlands. Nicholas processions combined with plays, or at least scenes, can be found at Matrei (Tyrol) under the name of "Klaubaufgehen", at Oberdrauburg (Carinthia) as "Bartel-Lauf" ("Bartel" being one of the many names for the devil and derived from the characteristic pointed beard ascribed to him), at Hamburg (Carinthia), at Bad Mitterndorf (Styria) and at St. Roman and Windischgarsten (Upper Austria). The strange mask called "Thomasniklo" (Tomnicholas) known only at Gams near Hieflau (Styria) appears on December 2lst, the feast of St. Thomas, and can be explained by taking into consideration the interlinking of mid-winter customs.


Advent Time Processions

The "Wild Hunt" ("Wildes Gjaid") of the Untersberg roams the streets of Salzburg on the second Thursday in Advent, the masks representing figures of the Untersberg legends.

The "Adventsänger" (Advent singers), also called "Anglöckler", belong to the public Advent customs; they can be encountered and heard at Oberndorf (Salzburg region). The custom was introduced in 1925, but is based on similar forms in connection with the traditional folkways of local boatmen traditions of the boatmen. In the city of Salzburg the Great Festival Hall (Großes Festspielhaus) presents the "Gang durch den Advent"(A celebration of Advent) on the four Saturdays of the Advent period. It is a popular celebration with music and literature on the stage. Under the title "Salzburger Advent" (Advent of Salzburg) this type of event is frequently imitated by other cities and towns.

Immediately before Christmas the so-called "Herbergsuchen" (looking for shelter) or "Frautragen" (carrying Our Lady) heightens the expectations which are fulfilled on Christmas Eve. The holy couple, Joseph and Maria (far advanced in pregnancy), are looking for a place where the child could be born. Salzburg especially is very fond of this custom; it culminates when the "Frautafeln" (painted boards showing the scene) are carried into the church on Christmas Eve.


Christmas Is Everywhere

In the afternoon of December 24th, one can hear the "Turmblasen" (playing of melodies on wind-instruments from a tower) in many localities, a costum which attracts children and lures them away from home.

Christmas remains basically a family feast, and for singles and especially old people, Christmas Eve can present a problem. In order to counteract the feeling of being left out and to counter depressive moods, hotels offer special "Christmas arrangements" (including the Christmas celebration with a decorated Christmas tree), and a "Christmas evening" is organized by parishes, often referred to as "Christmas of the lonely". In Vienna this is done in Maria Lourdes, 12th district, and St. Gertrud, 18th district. Christmas celebrations are also arranged by party organizations especially for their senior members, Christmas also leaves its mark on the newspapers; naturally radio and television are attuned to this feast; there is no advertising. A special perspective is the campaign "Licht ins Dunkel" (light for those who live in the dark) since 1973, a reference to the bringing in of the "light from Bethlehem" or "light of peace". It is organized by the provincial studio of the ORF in Upper Austria together with Austrian Airlines. All other ORF-studios participate in this light as well as the railway stations, the Austrian Railway Company helping in the distribution. Everybody can go there with candles and lanterns and obtain it, too.

The 25th of December, in Austria called "Christtag" (Day of Christ), is by tradition a family day. Inns and restaurants are mostly closed. The following day, however, St. Stephen's day (December 26th), is the day on which to pay visits and to go out. In former times the peasants "moved" their horses on "Stefanitag" (St. Stephen's day). The "Stephaniritt" (St. Stephen ride) at St. Stefan im Lavantial (Carinthia) should be seen in this perspective. The riding is combined with a blessing of the horses, St. Stephen being the oldest patron saint of horses and riders.


Season's Greetings And Good-Luck Charms

Christmas and New Year are the main motives for sending greetings of the season, very often the only correspondence that is still maintained between relatives and friends, Season’s greetings are also presented orally ("The best for Christmas and the New Year!") the wishing supported by small good-luck charms bought at special stands ("Neujahrsstandeln") between Christmas and New Year, or by a cultivated four-leafed clover called "clover of good luck". In parts of Carinthia, Styria, and the Burgenland children express their New Year's wishes in a very special way on December 28th, the feast of the Innocent Children. They roam the streets and visit houses carrying rods and twigs, used for "beating" the people, and at the same time shouting their wishes for a happy New Year, health and good luck. This is also done in the languages of the minorities. The custom is called "Frisch- und G'sund-schlagen" (beating people healthy).


One More Dance

On the last day of the year, December 31st (day of St. Silvester), Old Year services in the churches end the year by delivering retrospective summaries. Newspapers and radio and television offer reviews and previews. Groups of hunters shoot farewell to the old year and salute the new one. People at home waiting for the New Year to begin try to find out what lies ahead by various ways and means (for example by "Bleigiessen": hot lead is poured into cold water and solidifies immediately; the shape of the solid lead is believed to indicate what will happen next year). Those who do not want to stay at home celebrate in the streets, on St. Stephen's Square in Vienna, or in inns and restaurants. Some attend example "Silvesterballe" or New Year balls such as the "Kaiserball" (Emperor's ball) at the Imperial Palace, or the "Silvesterball" at Porcia castle at Spittal an der Drau (Carinthia). The balls are part of the Silvester traditions as well as the staging of the "Fledermaus" (operetta by Johann Strauss junior) in both of the Viennese opera houses (Staatsoper and Volksoper), also broadcast by television. Tickets for the New Year's concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra have to be ordered well in advance.

Television widens the public sphere and brings it into the homes, where private and public aspects meet and overlap. It also broadcasts Austrian customs and traditions worldwide, thus giving new dimensions to Austrian folk culture.


Photo: Christmas market in Salzburg, Mathias Kabel.