Folk Customs/ May and June

May has a spectacular beginning, in which the customs have different historical und ideological connections. May the first is the traditional date for erecting the maypole ("Maibaum"). The same day, a national holiday since 1919, is also associated with the May marches (from 1890) of the Socialist party especially for the working class.

The day is also called "Tag der Arbeit" ("Day of Work"). This social and political public custom has survived in spectacular form only in Vienna, where the route of the march eventually follows the Ringstrasse, ending in front of the Rathaus (City Hall). It attracts an increasing number of visitors from abroad every year. The maypole is erected during the night in secret, dedicated to girls, notables and innkeepers. In recent years, more and more official maypoles "for everybody" have been erected in villages, towns and municipal districts or quarters, often accompanied by an official ceremony with politicians giving speeches.

In Scheibbs (Lower Austria) such a ceremony is linked with the traditional "Maibaumkraxeln" (climbing the maypole) and "Bandltanz" (ribbondance). Laxenburg (Lower Austria) organizes a big meeting of folk dancers. Just as spectacular as the erecting of the maypoles can be their removing at the end of May, frequently on the last Sunday in the month. Here the regions of Semmering, Schneeberg, Wechsel and Bucklige Welt (Lower Austria) should be mentioned, The ceremonial "Maibaumumschneiden" (cutting of the maypole) is accompanied by music, performances of groups in traditional costumes, etc. Very often traditional masks appear playing scenes and making fun (there is always a jester, a doctor, often a bear, etc.).

The first Sunday in May is the date for a traditional sporting event, the "Gauderfest" at Zell am Ziller (in the Tyrol). It is the oldest festive event of this valley The most important element of this event is the "Ranggeln" (traditional wrestling), partly based upon a medieval competitive sport. Furthermore, there are animal fights (attended by a veterinary surgeon), and also Spring customs such as the "Grasausläuten" (ringing the grass - in order to wake it up and - make it grow).

May or June

Depending on Easter and therefore movable feasts are Ascension (of Christ), Pentecost, and Corpus Christi.

Ascension reminds men that Christ ascended to heaven 40 days after this resurrection at Easter, the event formerly being demonstrated in many churches. Nowadays this is done only in a few Carinthian villages, for example at St. Lorenzen in der Reichenau, the highest village in Austria also being a parish. It is also called "Alpendorf" ("Alpine Village"). The statue of Christ is pulled up and out of the nave (through a hole) accompanied by angels; the custom therefore is also known as "Engele-Tanz" (dancing of the angels) or "Engele-Auffahrt" (ascension of the angels). For many parishes Ascension is the day for First Communion.

Fifty days after Easter the church celebrates Whitsuntide or Pentecost, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Ghost.

Whitsunday is the traditional date for confirmation (for example every year at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna). On Whitmonday, unique riding customs take place in Carinthia, the "Riding for the Wreath" at Weitensfeld im Gurktal (a vestige of medieval knightly competitions), and the "Kufenstechen" or "stevanje" (stabbing the tub) at Feistritz an der Gail, vestige of a riding competition. The latter is especially characterized by the Slovenian minority living in this area; the singing is in Slovenian, and the so-called "Lindentanz" (linden dance) is performed in the striking costumes of the Gailtal, the costume of this minority.

The Power And The Glory Of The Catholic Church

The biggest Catholic procession as far as demonstration of faith is concerned, is the "Fronleichnamsprozession" (Corpus Christi procession), Corpus Christi being celebrated on the second Thursday after Whitsuntide. The sumptuous and sometimes striking arrangements are the result of strategies of the Counter-Reformation to promote Catholic propaganda. They were intended to demonstrate the power and glory of the Catholic church. Notables take part in the Corpus Christi procession as well as children in white, spreading flowers. In Vienna - St. Stephen’s - members of the federal government and the president of the republic also take part. The priest carries the Holy of Holies under a canopy to the four altars outside the church.

Young birches or big branches of these trees are set up along the procession route. In the country the people very often wear their traditional costumes. The marksmen and guards in their uniforms give salutes. The uniforms are rather splendid in Vorarlberg, in the Tyrol, and in Salzburg. Some localities show additional splendour: Bischofshofen, Hüttenau, Pfarrwerfen, Werfenweng, Mühlbach am Hochkönig (Salzburg), and Rohr im Gebirge (Lower Austria) by their flower-decorated poles ("Prangstangen"); Eibiswald and Deutschlandsberg (Syria) by flower carpets and carpet-like mosaics of flowers and grass. In Upper Austria lake processions take place on the Hallstätter- and Traunsee, starting at nine o’clock in the morning from Hallstatt or from Traunkirchen, In the Tyrolean Brixental, the Corpus Christi processions see the participants (including the priest) on horseback (called "Antlassritte" at Kirchberg, Westendorf, and Brixen im Thale). The flower-decorated poles (Prangstangen) are also used in church processions at other times.

The corps of boatmen in their 18th century uniforms carries out the "Himmelbrotschutzen" (immersing of blessed, but not consecrated, hosts) on the river Saizach near Obemdorf (Salzburg). The custom should not be seen as a pagan offering (to a river god etc.), but is probably a sign of memory of the boatmen and raftsmen who found their deaths in the Salzach.

On the Saturday and Sunday after Corpus Christi (and also during the summer), the "Samsonumzug" (procession of Samson) is held at Tamsweg (Salzburg), Samson being a gigantic figure about six metres high (named after the biblical Samson, famous for his superhuman strength).

The Giants Of The Counter-Reformation

This giant and other oversized masks came with the Capuchin monks from Bavaria, where gigantic figures had been used in processions for centuries. The Capuchin monks were very active during the Counter-Reformation. The procession of Samson at Krakaudorf (Styria) is held on the first Sunday in August (called "Oswaldisonntag" after St. Osvald), at Murau (Styria) on August ‘15th, the "Great Day of Our Lady" (Grosser Frauentag), as Assumption is referred to in many parts of Austria.

On Sunday after Corpus Christi (called Corpus Christi Sunday) the "Fahnenschwingen" (swinging of the colours) in memory of the brave resistance offered against the rebel king Bethlen Gábor (1620) takes place at Neckenmarkt (Burgenland), carried out by the young men in the uniforms of Hungarian soldiers of former times (Heiducken). The silken Esterhazy-banner displays the two-headed eagle.

It was Nikolaus Caount Esterhazy who granted the privilege of swinging the colours to the people of Neckenmarkt.


Since 1980 brass bands from all parts of Austria and also from abroad come to Vienna in June to participate in the big Austrian brass band festival (Blasmusikfest), giving also promenade concerts and showing off at parades.

June is the month of the important bonfires of the summer season. The "Herz-Jesu-Feuer" (Sacred Heart fires) in the Tyrol are quite unique. They are set alight on the Saturday or Sunday after the feast of the Sacred Heart (which is celebrated on the second Friday after Corpus Christi). These special bonfires are connected with the dedication of the Tyrol to the Sacred Heart (of Jesus) in 1796 (the year of the Napoleonic oppression). The first Sacred Heart bonfires were lit in 1876, the eightieth jubilee of the dedication. The most important bonfires of June are the midsummer fires ("Sonnwendfeuer") on or around June 21st, and the fires of St. John ("Johannisfeuer") on or around June 24th. As indicated, very often the fires are burnt on the next weekend (especially on Saturdays) because it is free from work and therefore better for organizing and attending fire and festival. The fires of St. Peter (the "Peterlfeuer") burn on or around the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (celebrated on June 29th). It should be noted that the burning often takes place on the eve of the feasts.

Beneficial Fires

The most important fires and common in all parts of Austria are the midsummer and St. John's fires which burn on mountains and hills accompanied by the catapulting of discs ("Scheibenschlagen") and hurling of torches ("Fackelschwingen"). Much has been and is said about the meaning or function of these fires. In historical perspective, they are said to be fires of danger or ritual purification or related to the sun. Furthermore, the fires are believed to be beneficial for men and life-stock. Ideological interpretations, as was the case during the time of the Third Reich, have nothing to do with the folk traditions.

Boatmen's Customs On The Salzach River
Every three years, on the last Sunday in July, there is a ‘historic pirates’ "battle" on the river Salzach at Qberndorf (Salzburg). The pirates’ camp is situated below the State Bridge where the "wedding" of the pirates’ captain is to take place. The brigands attack and rob a salt-boat, then they fire on the town of Laufen (on the opposite, Bavarian side of the river). Finally, the defeated pirates try to escape in their ship. They are arrested (hence the name "Banditenfangen" = catching the brigands) and condemned to death, the sentence eventually being modified to "death by drowning in beer" - now the popular feast can begin.

The custom is not attested before the 19th century and may owe its existence to the predilection for historical representations typical of the period of Romanticism. In this special case, one more factor could have been crucial. The boatmen on the river Salzach, confronted with the economic decline of their profession, tried to secure their economic existence as well as their professional identity.

Also on the river Salzach near Oberndorf the "Schifferstechen" (a fight between boatmen using spears) takes place on Sundays in July and August at irregular intervals (not every year!), organized by the boatmen-guard. The competition is held in the middle of the river, the best three fighters being awarded a cup. It is followed by the "Hansl-und-Gretl-Spiel", the "Wurstspringen" (jump for the sausage) and a river-feast.

The custom of "Schifferstechen" is first mentioned in 1596. The play, however, dates probably from the 18th century and belongs to the same playing-tradition of the boatmen as the Pirates’ battle and the "Sternsingen" at the beginning of the year, all three manifestations partly owing their evolution to the precarious economic situation of the boatmen in the 18th and particularly the 19th centuries.

Toward the end of July in the city of Salzburg, on the eve of the opening of the Salzburg Festival, more than one hundred dancers, clad in regional costume and equipped with torches, perform a "Fackeltanz" (torch-dance) on the Residenzplatz. Whilst this particular custom was inaugurated only in 1949, torch-dances of this kind are a traditional way of celebrating ceremonial receptions.


Photo: Paul Wade