Folk Customs/ March and April

Easter is a movable feast depending on the first full moon in Spring, and therefore can either fall in March or April. Customs connected with Lent and Easter are the most important ones in these months.

Sparkle Sunday

In Vorarlberg and in the adjoining Tyrolean region called Ausserfern, the Funken (sparkles) burn on the first Sunday in Lent, which therefore is called Funkensonntag (Sparkle Sunday). These special seasonal bonfires are only known in the western parts of Austria. On top of the sparkle (i.e. the woodpile) is the sparkle-witch, a doll filled with gunpowder which finally explodes. These and other seasonal bonfires are often seen in connection with magic, especially as regards fertility abundance and health. In any case, these fires including the many necessary additional actions often canted out in groups like collecting wood, making the witch, baking the special doughnuts - "Funkenküechle" - etc. are good for the community feeling and communication. When the young men hurl discs of honour and mockery ("Ehren"- or "Spottschreiben"), they refer to persons or events they think worthy of mentioning at this public occasion.

For a few years, the Funkenzunft (Sparkle guild) of Dornbirn-Kehlegg (Vorarlberg) has organized a Funkenfeuer (sparkle fire) in Vienna (19th district, Döbling, Himmelstrasse) on the Thursday before the second Sunday in Lent. The fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare) is already characterized by looking forward to Easter which is also expressed in the liturgical rose colour. In former times, Laetare was a day on which people liked to pay visits (cf. "Mothering Day" in England). In Gmunden in Upper Austria the day is called "Liebstatt-Sunday", the first part of this name referring to meeting in public. Members of the Costume Society present people in the streets with gingerbread, and mead is served in inns and cafes. The custom in this form was established after World War 11, with a historical connection to the Corpus Christi Brotherhood, which presented poor citizens on the day of their assembly (which was Laetare), being not only possible but also probable.

Laetare is a traditional date for markets and fairs. On the Monday and Tuesday after Laetare-Sunday, one of the traditional rag-fairs of Graz (Fröhlichgasse) is held. The Kalvarienbergmarkt (Calvary fair) in Vienna at the parish church of Hernals (17th district) is a typical Lenten fair.


Covered Crosses

When Laetare is past, the Passion of Christ comes into focus. In the churches the crosses are covered, and the big Lenten cloths in the presbytery bar the view to the altar. In Austria, these old picture cloths are traditional in Carinthia, dating back to the 15th century (for example in the cathedral of Gurk). The Carinthian picture cloths, having been introduced by a Westfalian bishop, are painted; in Germany (Westfahan), from where they originate, they are embroidered. The cloth illustrate scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

Since the 1970’s an increasing number of modem Lenten cloths are used reflecting also contemporary problems such as pollution control, In Vienna, every fourth Catholic parish already uses one.

On the Friday before Palm Sunday, called Schmerzensfreitag ("Friday of Suffering"), a ram is offered at Oetting near Oberdrauburg in Carinthia. The dressed-up ram is present at the High Mass, after which it is sold by auction, The proceeds go to the benefit of the church. The ram is not killed but used for breeding. The same custom is known in Obermauern and Kals (Eastern Tyrol).

Palm Sunday starts the Holy Week (in German "Karwoche", kara meaning grief, lament). In memory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, palm ceremonies and processions are held in every parish. In some cases specially shaped bunches and palm donkeys attract more than liturgical interest.


Palm Bunches, Palm Poles And Palm Sticks

Striking differences can be observed in the form, size and decoration of the Palmbuschen (palm bunches). In Austria, the bunches are made of sallow-twigs (colloquially "palms"). The most common small and simple Palmbuschen consist of sallow and some box and a special kind of juniper (Juniperus Sabina), colloquially "Segenbaum" (tree of blessing). At Hohenems and Lustenau (Vorarlberg) people use white fir and make the twigs into a crown. Among the decorations we find coloured paper chains, empty eggs, apples and pictures of Saints (called "Hörgli"). At Schnifis (Vorarlberg) the bunch is made of ten different kinds of plants. Thaur (Tyrol) is famous for the "little palm- donkeys" where the carved figures of Christ and the donkey are placed on a small wooden pedestal entwined with branches of ivy and sallow, supported by a pole. Besides these unique shapes which are connected with the big palm donkey of Thaur referred to later, we also find here long, tree-like branches of sallow called Palmlatten (palm staffs) carried in procession. In the Western parts of Carinthia the bunches are tied to poles, up to three metres high. In Radenthein (Carinthia) the bunches are called Palmbesen (palm brooms), carrying pretzels and little bags filled with seeds. East of Villach (Carmnthia) long rods of sallow (sometimes five metres high) are bound together, for example at St. Georgen im Lavanttal. St. Andra im Lavanttal, Ferlach and Eisenkappel (Carinthia) produce especially shaped forms of bunches (hearts, crosses, arches and T-shapes). Bad lschl and St. Wolfgang (Upper Austria) call their special types for example "Stanglpalm" (palm poles) and "Palmstecken" (palm sticks). Upper Austria on the whole is known for the great variety of special names for the bunches among them also "bundles" and "lanterns". In Lower Austria big and special forms are exceptional. An example is at Prinzendorf an der Zaya and Sindelburg where they are rather fresh innovations.

In Vienna, the cathedral's parish (St. Stephen's) orders real palms and olive branches from Assisi (Italy). The blessing takes place in front of the Trinity column on the Graben, an adjoining big street, the ceremony being performed by the Viennese archbishop. About five thousand people take part in the procession, including many notables.

The palm bunch is put behind the cross or a picture of a Saint for the protection of the house or apartment, or people living there. In the countryside, parts of the bunch are dopositd in the stables to protect the animals, and under the roof to avert lightning. Very often some twigs are stuck in the house garden and in the fields. In the past, when thunderstorms approached, catkins were thrown into the flames of the kitchen stove or fireplace, and swallowed as "holy medicine" by people suffering from a sore throat.

Whereas in the countryside the palm bunches in all their variations are made by the people themselves, in the towns and cities they are bought in the markets and at the florist's. In Vienna bunches are sometimes made in the parishes as a hobby.


Procession With Palm Donkey

"Palmeselumzüge" (processions with the palm donkey) were quite usual in many places from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. Today they are very rare, exotic and marvellous relics of the past. At Thaur near Innsbruck (Tyrol), a life-sized wooden figure of Christ sitting on a she-ass (as the Bible says) is pulled along on a little cart by altar boys. The procession starts at noon from the parish church of Thaur and moves towards the little old church of St. Romedius (situated 790 metres high in the mountains), and returns to Thaur via the parish church of Rum (another nearby village). At Puch near Hallein (Salzburg), the palm donkey group dates from the 17th century and is carried by four young men. It was saved from destruction by being hidden in the loft of a farm house (called "Kollerbauer").

Such processions with a priest riding on a she-ass or a wooden donkey in memory of Christ's entry into Jerusalem were quite common in the Middle Ages. However, the Enlightenment did not care for this kind of imitation of the biblical event, which was so liked and cultivated by the popular liturgy, and did not permit it any more because it was thought that the people were being brainwashed by this. Very few palm donkeys survived, sometimes just by accident. These relics can now be found in museums, churches and monasteries but only a few of them are still used liturgically: Biblical events are given visual expression in the cribs, still known to everybody as Christmas cribs. There are, however, also Lenten and Easter cribs. One of these can be seen from Holy Thursday to Easter in the Calvary Church on the Philippsberg near Schwanenstadt (Upper Austria). The mechanical crib, dated to 1712 and showing Christ’s Passion on the road to Calvary, is arranged in the manner of a baroque peepshow. At Mariabrunn (Vienna) only three scenes of the big crib, painted on boards (dated 1770), still exist. They are exhibited in the parish church, still giving the impression of a "silent theatre".


Passion Plays

The Passion plays are a form of live Theatre, However, they are not performed in Lent or at Easter, and not every year, but at greater intervals. In Austria we find Passion plays at Erl (Tyrol) from 1613, at Hinterthiersee (Tyrol), for 200 years and at the Roman quarry of St. Margarethen (Burgenland). Every fifth or sixth year, we have perfomances during the fair time of the year. At Klingenbach (Burgenland), the Croatian minority presents a religious play in the Croatian language every fifth year in May.

The "Mölltaler Passion", also known as "Kreuzziehen" (pulling of the cross), "Stumme Passion" (silent Passion) or "Leiden-Christi-Spiel" (play of the suffering of Christ), is not a Passion play in the ordinary sense of the word, but an almost silent imitation of the events of the Holy Week. Since 1891, it has been performed by the village people on Holy Thursday and Good Friday in the evenings.

The sufferings of Our Lord are also recalled to the minds of the people by singing customs as at GroßarI (Salzburg), where the "Leiden-Christi-Singen" (singing of the sufferings of Christ) is carried out on Holy Thursday and Good Friday night, at Traunkirchen (Upper Austria) with its "Antlass-Singen" (the name referring to an old word for Holy Thursday which was the day when sinners were formerly dismissed from punishments by the Church), taking place on Holy Thursday night, and in some Styrian villages, such as Mooskirchen and Hitzendorf, with their "Maschta-Singen" (dialect form for "singing of the tortures" of Christ). The latter custom is a vestige of an old public procession of atonement, and the former is reminiscent of popular liturgical Passion plays.

Christ’s death also comes very much to the fore when people are confronted with the Holy Sepulchres, which were not so much in use after the Second Vatican Council, but are once more much in favour since the 1980’s. The Tyrol has a special tradition as regards these Holy Sepulchres which are in baroque style and with stage-like architecture, Here this public church custom is going through a time of revival. For the "Heiligen-Grab-Schauen" (looking at the Holy Sepulchres) Good Friday is the main date. Some Viennese churches are returning to the tradition of celebrating mourning masses on Holy Thursday and Good Friday In the Haydn-Church (also Bergkirche, i.e. mountain church, situated on a little hill) at Eisenstadt (Burgenland), the oratotio "The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross" by Joseph Haydn is performed on Good Friday.

From Holy Thursday onwards the church bells remain silent. People say that they "flew to Rome". Until the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection on Holy Saturday boys wielding "Ratschen" (rattling instruments) and shouting rhymes replace the tolling of the church bells. At Plessnitz im Liesertal (Camthia), children carry out the "Tafelngehen", a rattling procession as a variant of the usual noisy customs of the Holy Week.

Easter bonfires are also widespread. They have special shapes (predominantly Christian symbols such as the initials of Christ and Mary, chalice and host, sacred heart, etc.) which is the case in the Lavanttal (Carinthia) and the southern part of Burgenland. The bonfires are often accompanied by the hurling of torches and shooting. These Easter bonfires, also called "bonfires of joy", burn in the night before Easter Sunday and are said to announce the rejoicing over the Resurrection of Christ.

There are, however, many different interpretations of the meaning of the fires at or around Easter: they are considered to be danger-signal fires from the time of the Turkish invasions (16th and 17th centuries), pre-Christian Spring fires, fires of ritual purification, etc. In parallel to other customs, a connection is established to the life of Christ. Hence these fires are sometimes also understood to be the "burning of Christ’s death-bed" (people used to sleep on a mattress filled with straw which was burned after the person died - in former times always at home).


Easter Eggs: Coloured, Scratched And Painted

The secular symbol of Easter is the Easter Egg that is decorated in many ways - from simple ornaments to magnificent and highly artistic forms. Very often these eggs are produced for sale. Hardboiled coloured eggs - said to be brought by the Easter Bunny (Osterhase) - are used for playing and also eaten. Empty eggs decorate the Easter Tree ("Osterbaum") or Easter Bunch ("Osterstrauss"), an innovation since World War II. Special eggs are collector’s items, presented at egg exchanges ("Ostereierbörsen"). At Stinatz (Burgenland), a Croatian community, traditional ornamentations are scratched into the dyed surface of the eggs (being either red, violet or black), the ornaments appearing in white and conveying a lace-like impression. The famous eggs of Stinatz are in great demand and are produced in big quantities all year round. They are not only sold locally or in Vienna, but also exported to the U.S.A. where many immigrants from Burgenland live. Of highest artistic value are the Ukrainian batik eggs made by members of the Ukrainian minority in Vienna.

On "White Sunday" (first Sunday after Easter), boys at Hoechst (Vorarlberg) wear the "Schappel", an ivy-crown with tinsel. Formerly this custom was quite common around Bregenz, the provincial capital of Vorarlberg.


The 4-Mountain Run

In April there are a couple of "Bewegungsbräuche" (customs connected with motion and exercise) of various kinds and origins. The quite unique "Vierbergelauf" (four mountain run) on the "Dreinagelfreitag" (Friday of the Three Nails, the second Friday after Easter) has a very long history and was interpreted in many (often wild) ways. The participants, or pilgrims, assemble the previous night for midnight mass in the little church on the Magdalensberg (Carinthia), then the 50 kilometres "run" begins. It leads via Zollfeld, the Ulrichsberg (short service), Karnberg and the Glantal to the Veitsberg (also Göseberg), Gradenegg and Sörg (short services) to the Lorenziberg, where it ends. The participants collect on their way various "mountain leaves" (ivy, evergreen, juniper, etc.), which are then used in a magical way to avert thunderstormes and lightning.