Austrian Folk Customs/ February

As January is characterized by New Year and Epiphany the most important customs of February are connected with carnival: in Western Austria called "Fasnacht", elsewhere known as "Fasching". The first traditional date, however, is Candlemas on February 2nd, with, for example, the Candlemas fiddling in Ligist (Styria).

Carnival commences with the ball season in January which comprises dances at inns and hotel ballrooms as well as elegant balls in grand rooms and famous buildings such as the Imperial Palace, the Musikvereinsgebaude and the Opera in Vienna, where the world famous "Opera Ball" is held on the last Thursday of carnival, A special type of dance event is the fancy-dress ball. A long time ago, in the towns, above all in Vienna, mummers in the streets were prohibited with the exception of organized processions of masked figures. Since then, fancy-dress events are restricted to houses. Especially famous were the "Redouten" and "Gschnas-Feste".

Tyrolean "Fasnacht" and Ausseer Carnival

In the country areas the traditional processions of masked figures are still the most important events of the season, taking place on the last three days of carnival or Shrovetide (Shrove Sunday Monday and Tuesday), which are often referred to as the "three holy Shrove days".

Austria has two regional centres of such carnival processions, which are attracting many visitors: the "Tiroler Fasnacht" in the Tyrol, and in the Salzkammergut area in small neighbouring towns the "Ausseer Fasching" (Styria) and the "Ebenseer Fetzenfasching" (carnival of rags, Upper Austria).

The most famous Tyrolean Carnival celebrations take place in a few villages and towns, which take turns in the organization of these festivities. Imst organizes the Schemenlaufen (running of masks/ghosts, since Schemen means both) about every fourth year, Nassereith the Schellerlaufen (running of masks with bells, the bells being part of the dress) about every third year, Telfs the Schleicherlaufen (the name is derived form the word "schleichen" = to sneak) every fifth year, Thaur the Mullerlaufen, formerly also Huttlerlaufen ("mullen" means to beat: the Muller beats the spectators on their backs, which is considered to bring luck; "Huttler" means rags, referring to the rag costumes of these masks), every third to fifth year, and Axams the Wampelerreiten (riding of the Wampelers, the name alluding to their plump appearances) about every fourth year.

All these masks, the Scheller and Roller (figures with big bells - "Schellen", and little ones - "Rollen", fastened to their belts), the Schleicher, Muller or Huttler etc., are extraordinarily beautiful and belong to the so-called Schönperchten (beautiful winter masks). They are particularly characterized by their headdresses, i.e. the "Schein" (shine) of the "masks" or "ghosts" at lmst (the "shine" of the Scheller being sort of a monstrance-like structure with artificial flowers, "gold" and "silver" tinselled glass-balls, so-called glass-feathers and with a looking glass in the middle, the "shine" of the Roller, bigger and lined with yew-tree branches, the "Krone" (crown) of the Scheller at Nassereith, the "Schleicherhüte" (hats of the Schleicher, i.e. sneakers) at Telfs, and the "Altar (altar i.e. big head-dress with a looking- glass) of the "Spiegel-" or "Altartuxer" (clad in the traditional costume of the Ziller Valley where the village of Tux is situated) at Thaur.

Also part of the processions are "Schiache" (ugly masks, where ugly has connotations of evil) such as the witches, as well as many other funny and traditional types (jester, chimney-sweeper, bear, horse and many others).

The masks pay tribute to important persons and admonish those who have misbehaved in relation to rules and local mores. Honour and reproach relate, of course, strongly to local affairs, but general events (e.g. world politics) are also commented on.

All the processions mentioned above are public customs and are aimed at audiences which also include non-residents, These big Tyrolean Carnival celebrations require months of preparation by all the local men and women, and need extensive rehearsal by the performers who are only male. They are an important element of what the towns and villages represent and have high publicity value. It should be noted that nowadays these carnival processions take place on a Sunday during carnival.

The "Schellenschlagen" of Lans, however, still takes place on the old, principal date of the Tyrolean Carnival, i.e. on the Thursday before Shrove Sunday which is named "Unsinniger" (non-sensical or foolish Thursday).

At the "Ausseer Fasching", the carnival at Bad Aussee in the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut, the Trommelweiber (women with drums), really men in white nightdresses, with night-caps and smooth, smiling masks march through the town playing the carnival march of Aussee. The ‘guild’ of the women with drums is evidenced from 1767.

On Shrove Tuesday the beautiful Flinserln (tinsels) roam the streets, always in pairs (man and women, the "woman" also being a man in disguise). They are named after the tinsel with which their white linen costumes are ornamentally decorated. The making of such a costume takes at least one whole year, often longer. The Flinserln wear a mask of cloth ("Gugel") over their heads with a beak-like nose which gives them a bird-like look. The Flinserlzug (file of tinsels) consists of the Flinserlmusik (musicians, also in tinsels-costumes) and about 30 to 40 Flinserln all carrying white bags full of nuts which they distribute among accompanying children.

On Shrove Monday as well as on Shrove Tuesday three to five groups of Faschingsbriefsänger (carnival singers reciting the carnival letters) recall the funny and stupid events of the past year to the people’s minds.

The carnival at nearby Ebensee in the Upper Austrian part of the Salzkammergut culminates in the Fetzenfasching (carnival of rags), referring to the ragged outfit of the masks, on Shrove Monday. They use falsetto thus pretending to imitate spooky voices, and wave old umbrellas called parapluies; for this reason their special march is called either Fetzenmarsch of Parapluiemarsch.

An innovation in the Austrian carnival scene is the Villacher Fasching (Villach, Carinthia) with a carnival prince and princess and a carnival guild. This type is based upon the Mother Karneval (Cologne, Germany), a form common in the Rhineland. The Mödlinger Fasching (Mödling, Lower Austria) on the other hand was already modelled upon the Villacher Fasching.



The Blochziehen (pulling a block or a log) is carried out on Shrove Sunday or Shrove Tuesday usually only in those villages and towns where no marriage ceremony has taken place during the past year. Therefore the custom is sometimes interpreted as "compensating marriage". Where the original motive is not connected with the Blochziehen any more, the custom changed to a general carnival procession as for example in Fiss in the Tyrol, where the block is pulled about every fourth year. In the Southern parts of the Burgenland and the adjoining Eastern region of Styria as well as in the Gailtal and the Lavanttal (valleys of the Gail and Lavant) in Carinthia the custom is still based on the original concept.

When the Carnival ends (Shrove Tuesday at midnight), "Carnival", a puppet, is "buried" or "burned". The following day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, for which the traditional dish is the Heringschmaus (pickled herring salad) - and this is offered in many restaurants.


Image: Nassereither Schellerlaufen