Folk Customs/ January

Entering the New Year, with church bells ringing and waltz music swinging.

January 1st, New Year. In Vienna, New Year is celebrated at midnight by a big feast in St. Stephen’s Square and the streets of the Inner City. A map and a programme of the events are published in the daily newspapers.

The big bell called Pummerin, tolls in the north tower of St Stephen’s. The Pummerin, three metres high and weighing 21 tons, is the second biggest bell in the world. In 1952, its transfer to Vienna from St. Florian in Upper Austria took place in a festive and ceremonial way. Cast from Turkish canons, the original Pummerin tolled for the first time in 1712 at the coronation of Emperor Charles VI, father of the famous Empress Maria Theresa. In 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, when St. Stephens was burning, the bell crashed down and was smashed to pieces.

The crowds on St. Stephen’s Square, in the streets of the Inner City, ("waltzing streets") and on the squares, like "Am Hof" and "Neuer Markt", start the New Year with dancing. Midnight is marked by the Blue Danube Waltz (the unofficial Austrian anthem) by Johann Strauss junior. Sparkling wine is served at street stalls and fire crackers are thrown. The latter custom is both dangerous and a waste of money so an alternative is offered since 1987 by action called "Bread Instead" (Brot statt Böller) in favour of the Third World.

The New Year's Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from the Great Music Hall of the Musikvereinsgebäude is broadcasted in the morning by the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) - radio, and at noon by the ORF-TV, which is accepted by all the big broadcasting corporations of the world for their local transmissions. Tickets for the concert have to be ordered a very long time in advance. The Viennese New Year’s Concert has been part of the town’s traditions since the 18th century. The parallels in the countryside are the New Year fiddlers and brass bands.

January 6th, Twelfth Night or Epiphany, is the date for mummers of various kinds such as the Twelfth Night or Epiphany singers (Sternsinger), the runners with special caps (Glöckler), special mid-winter masks (Perchten), and the Three Kings. Sometimes they appear on the previous day, and also on the day after.

The running of the figures with special caps (Glöcklerlaufen), for example, takes place on January 5th (late afternoon till midnight) in Upper Austria in Ebensee, Bad Ischl and Gmunden and in Styria in Stainach, Altaussee and Bad Aussee. These "Glöckler" derive their name from the custom of knocking at the doors (the verb "glocken" means "to knock"), which has nothing to do with the bells attached to their belts (though the noun "Glocke" means "bell"). They are organised in groups called. "Passen" wearing caps of different shapes showing various symbols. Having a light inside, these caps remind one of stained glass windows. The traditional route of the runners is called the "Tour". In return of their Happy New Year wishes the runners are rewarded with a special doughnut, the "Glöcklerkrapfen". Runners with illuminated caps have been known since 1860/1880.


Mid-Winter Masks and Stilted Dancers

Running of mid-winter masks (Perchten) in the Gastein valley in Salzburg: The Perchten run on January 6th in Badgastein-Böckstein and on January 7th from Badgastein at the bottom of the valley to Hofgastein.

The procession consists of twelve Kappenperchten (with beautiful large head dresses called "caps"), two Turmperchten ("Turm" means "tower", and refers to the pointed cap, two to three metres high), "Wildperchten", "Jagdperchten", and "Fetzenperchten" (the names again referring especially to their appearances marked by game, hunt and rags) and their "Gesellinnen" (companions), young men dressed in regional female costumes. They all run in single file. It is believed that the good quality and abundance of the next harvest plus the well-being of the people depend on the appearance and dancing and jumping of these mid-winter masks.

January 6th and 7th are the days when the Stelzentänzer (dancers on stilts), dressed in white, perform at Unken in Salzburg. Their stilts are a means to make them taller, thus making them look supernatural, which the perchten mentioned above achieve through their oversized head-dresses. It is likely that the out-of-this-world impression they convey is the reason that superhuman powers are ascribed to them. People believe that they bring luck. The dancing on the stilts requires great skill and is definitely a special tribute to the persons for whom they perform. Dancing on stilts is also carried out for local folk shows.

On January 5th at Unken and Stuhlfelden, both in Salzburg, we meet the Tresterer, eye-catching masks who perform a special kind of "dancing", a stamping said to be in connection with threshing (cf. the verb "trestern"), The Tresterer as well as the Stelzentänzer and the Perchten belong to the group of so-called Schönperchten (beautiful mid-winter masks).


The Blessing from the Three Kings

A special custom at Epiphany is the ride of the Three Kings. On January 5th and 6th, at Neukirchen near Altmünster in Upper Austria, we encounter biblical royalty on horseback. They are benevolent not only to the locals, but also towards all drivers they meet, whom they wish a Happy New Year. At Scheibbs, in Lower Austria, the riders also visit the mechanical Christmas crib in the town church.

The "singing of the Three Kings" or "Epiphany singing" is another traditional custom of the day, which is sometimes "Big New Year". In Heiligenblut am Grossglockner (Carinthia) five groups ("Rotten") of grown men without masks carrying a pole with an illuminated revolving star wander from the evening of January 5th to January 6th (morning mass) from the village to the surrounding mountain farms. As they do so, the groups sing the "Three Kings song" (fourteen stanzas) finishing with good wishes for the New Year, which also include the winter guests. At Gmunden in Upper Austria the Epiphany carols are sung in the evening of January 6th in front of the Three Kings’ Altar (by Thomas Schwanthaler 1678) of the town church. At Ried im Innkreis also in Upper Austria, the Epiphany singers are accompanied by the "Innviertler Schulspatzen", a semi-professional children’s choir. The singing takes place in the townhall square as dusk set in.

The singers of Oberndorf in Salzburg perform from January 1st to January 6th, carrying a revolving star as well as an illuminated Christmas crib.

The close connection between Christmas and New Year becomes clear from the traditional processions. Another aspect of these customs, where the masked figures are usually presented with small gifts of money, and almost always with refreshments, is a very practical one. Especially when carried out by grown-ups, as was often the case jn former times, they helped to survive by providing some extra income in winter times, when many were out of work - like boatmen, ferrymen, or seasonal workers such as harvesters. In its present form Epiphany singing in Austria and Bavaria has been known since the middle of the 16th century, based upon still older singing traditions at Christmas and New Year. The carol "We are the Three Kings from the East" is a typical example, going back to handbills of the 16th century.