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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

Austrian folklore: Myths and legends you should know about

Every country has its own folklore and Austria is no exception. Get ready to impress your Austrian friends with knowledge about the country’s unique and mysterious legends.

People gather around a bonfire in the early evening
Austria has many traditions stemming from folklore. Image by Angelika Warmuth / dpa / AFP.

Many newcomers to Austria will be surprised to discover the many myths, legends and superstitions that exist in the Alpine Republic.

Some say it’s because Austria is a Catholic country, whereas others say it goes back to Austria’s strong farming roots and close connection to nature.

Whatever the reason, there is a wealth of folklore that still exists today. Here are some of the most prominent Austrian legends and the stories behind them.

The Nachtkrapp

Nachtkrapp – or night Raven, in English – is a giant nocturnal bird-like creature in Austrian and South German folklore. The legend is that the Nachtkrapp hunts at night and is used to scare children into going to bed on time.

The Nachtkrapp is described as having holes for eyes that are said to represent death. Likewise, if someone looks into the holes in the Nachtkrapp’s wings they will become unwell.

The dark version of the Nachtkrapp story is that if a child witnesses the bird they will be abducted and taken back to the nest to be eaten.

The lighter version is that the Nachtkrapp will place children in a bag and fly away. Either way, quite scary stuff for kids.

READ MORE: Aberglaube: Eight strange Austrian superstitions foreigners should know about

Not all stories about the Nachtkrapp are about kidnapping though. In Burgenland there are stories about the Guter Nachtkrapp (the goodnight Raven) which flies into children’s rooms and sings them to sleep.

The old wives’ tales about Nachtkrapp are believed to originate from rook infestations in Central Europe that became an existential threat to farmers.

The Krampus

Anyone that has spent a Christmas season in Austria will have heard about the Krampus, but for anyone that might be scratching their head at the name, here’s a quick explainer.

The Krampus is a horned, half-demon figure that is common in folklore across many Central European countries, especially in Alpine regions. He accompanies St. Nicholas, who is the patron saint of children in Catholicism and brings presents at Christmas.

READ ALSO: Here comes Santa Claus (with his satanic sidekicks)

However, just as St. Nicholas rewards children for good behaviour, the Krampus punishes kids if they have behaved badly throughout the year. According to folklore, this is done by chasing children through the streets and taking them to his lair in the mountains (again – another kidnapping tale).

There are several theories about the origin of the Krampus figure, but it is likely that the legend is based on early mythology as the figure has similarities to creatures in both Norse and Greek mythology. 

Today, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5th), young men still dress up in Krampus costumes and run around towns and cities to celebrate the story of the Krampus – and scare a few children in the process.

Participants celebrating the legend of the Krampus. Photo by Peter Kneffel / dpa / AFP.

The Kasmandl

The Kasmandl is a small creature with grey hair and a wrinkled face that lives in the Austrian mountains.

During the summer months, it is believed the Kasmandl lives outdoors to protect the environment and the dairy cows that graze on the mountain meadows. He survives by eating plants and small animals, like frogs and snakes.

Then, when the shepherds and dairy maids leave their mountain huts in the autumn to go back to the valleys, the Kasmandl moves into one of the vacant huts for the winter to act as a caretaker.

But the Kasmandl just has one request – the shepherds must leave some supplies for the winter, such as cheese, bread and chopped firewood. Otherwise the Kasmandl will fly into a rage and scare the cows, as well as terrorise the farmers.

Tradition dictates that mountain huts should be empty from November 11th (Harvest Festival) to April 24th (St. George’s Day). The Kasmandl is then kicked out of the hut in the spring by a procession of traditionally dressed folk playing out of tune instruments.

The spring procession is still celebrated today in some mountain villages in Austria.

Sonnwendfeuer

Sonnwendfeuer (which means “fire of the solstice” in English) usually takes place on 21 June to celebrate the longest day of the year and involves lighting hundreds of fires along the mountain peaks to create a midsummer bonfire.

It’s a long tradition in Tyrol, dating back to Mediaeval times and, as with most long-held traditions, comes with its own myths and superstitions.

The custom of Sonnwendfeuer started in the 14th Century and originally marked the beginning of the harvest. It involved a community celebration with drinks and bonfires.

FOR MEMBERS: Austria’s Sonnwendfeuer: What is it and why is it celebrated?

The fires were believed to increase the power of the sun and keep evil away from people and animals. It was also believed that Sonnwendfeuer would ward off storms and make the grass on the meadows grow strong.

Over the years though, the meaning of Sonnwendfeuer has shifted and the fires are no longer associated with farming, the harvest or superstitions. Instead, the focus is mainly on the solstice.

Today, Sonnwendfeuer, also known as “Feuerbrennen” or “Johannesfeuer”, is a family-friendly event in the Austrian Alps and Bavaria in Germany. 

In smaller communities, locals gather in groups to light fires on the mountains and have drinks, but there are also more formal events organised by tourism boards.

Do you have a favourite Austrian folklore or tradition that we’ve missed here? Get in touch to tell us about it: [email protected]

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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

Austrian Christmas traditions: The festive dates you need to know

Catholics celebrate the first Sunday of Advent this weekend, and Austrians are ready for the season with crowns, demon-like creatures lurking, and a winged baby that brings children toys.

Austrian Christmas traditions: The festive dates you need to know

The Christmas season is definitely full of events in Austria, a country where 55.2 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, according to Statistik Austria data from 2021. The season starts early, as Christmas markets open by mid-November, and lasts until January 6th, when Austrians traditionally bring down their season decorations.

There are also many specific dates and local traditions that can seem endearing or absolutely terrifying. For example, in early December, a nice man with a white beard brings tangerines and chocolates to good children. 

But before he does, his “assistant”, a nightmarish creature with horns and carrying around loud chains named Krampus, goes to the houses of children who misbehave.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: A guide to the main Christmas Markets in Austria

Christmas markets are open to all from mid (sometimes early) November, and Austrians traditionally flock to the spots for their yearly share of glühwein, punsch and typical food. The cities also light up with Christmas lights and decorations, and the season is one of the best for Austrian tourism, especially in the capital Vienna. You can see HERE a list of all the Viennese Christmas markets in 2022.

Don’t want to miss out on any traditions? Here are the dates for the Austrian Christmas season:

Advent Sundays (November 27th)

The fourth Sunday before Christmas is also known as the first Advent Sunday – it starts the “season of Advent” (or the season of “Arrival”) and many Austrian Christmas traditions.

This year, the first Advent Sunday is on November 27th.

Austrians will typically celebrate by baking Christmas biscuits and cookies, putting up some decorations and, most notably, preparing an Advent wreath (Adventkranz) that will hold the four candles of Advent. 

Then, every Sunday until Christmas, a new candle will be lit, counting down the time until Christmas. Some families will join in a celebratory meal and might even sing carols (including Silent Night which is actually Austrian).

Adventskalender (December 1st)

Another way of counting down the days until Christmas is with the traditional Adventskalender – those can start on the first Sunday of Advent. However, the commercial ones are typically from December 1st until December 25th.

There are countless calendars for sale and usually, for each day, the person gets a typical “present” that the person receives. Usually, it’s chocolates or sweets (more religious ones will contain a bible verse or a prayer), but nowadays, you can find Adventskalender of almost any theme – including for dogs.

READ ALSO: Eight unmissable Christmas experiences in Austria

Barbarazweig (December 4th)

On December 4th, Austrians celebrate St Barbara’s Day or Barbaratag. In 2022, the date also falls on an Advent Sunday. 

For Barbaratag, some people in Austria will cut small twigs and sticks from cherry trees or forsythias to decorate a vase at home. There is a superstition that if the twig blossoms before Christmas, the family will have good luck or someone will get married. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is travelling to Austria this winter worth it?

Participants wearing masks featuring the character of “Krampus”, a half-goat, half-demon figure punishing misbehaving children during the Christmas season. (Photo by Peter Kneffel / dpa / AFP)

Krampus (December 5th)

This might be one of the most unusual and surprising traditions (if you have never seen it before, that is). On December 5th, a horned, scary anthropomorphic devil creature visits the homes of Austrians and scares children who weren’t good kids during the year. They are also said to scare away the dark spirits of winter and are a very traditional part of local folk customs.

There are many Krampuslaufen (a sort of Krampus parade) in Austria – not all on December 5th. In them, people dress up as the demonic entity with chains and torches. 

READ ALSO: German Advent word of the day: Der Krampus

Nikolaus

Krampus is actually a companion to the much more friendly St. Nicholas, an entity that looks quite a lot like Santa Claus. 

St. Nicholas comes during the night of the 5th to 6th of December and rewards the well-behaved children with tangerines, sweets and peanuts. This is why your Austrian neighbours might leave their boots outside on that evening – Nikolaus fills them up with gifts and sweets. 

He has a long white beard and wears a religious vestment that is white and red, similar to a bishop’s vest.

READ ALSO: Posting Christmas presents from Austria? Here’s what you need to know

Christmas Eve and Christkind (December 24th)

If you think a lot has happened already, then imagine Christmas Eve. This is when the actual celebrations happen (not on the 25th). The shops will close early, and families will gather to decorate the Christmas tree – yes, it’s not uncommon for Austrians to follow this tradition of only decorating the tree on December 24th.

They also meet for Christmas eve dinner, which can vary greatly depending on family traditions and Austrian regions. From raclette to roasted geese or cold meats, much can be served during the evening. 

Another thing that might sound strange to foreigners is that there is no Santa Claus or Father Christmas in Austria. Instead, it is the “Christkind” (literally Christ Child, or baby Jesus) who brings the presents on Christmas eve.

READ ALSO: Where to find international food in Austria this Christmas

He looks much like a Cherubin and the children are told that he brings the presents, rings a bell and lights up the Christmas tree. 

The whole experience may seem curious to those watching for the first time: kids are lured into a separate room and the adults run to get gifts from the secret hiding places, set up the scene, turn on the tree lights and turn off other lights. Some then ring a small bell and the children are surprised to learn that they barely missed the winged baby who brought all the gifts.  

Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day (December 25th and 26th)

Though the evening before Christmas is the most important, Austrians continue to meet up during the next day and the 26th. 

Lunches and dinners are shared with loved ones and there is some more gift exchanging during those days. If they live in the mountains, they might go skiing on Christmas Day and later, as well.

READ ALSO: How to save money and still go skiing in Austria

Three wise men tree ornament

Epiphany is when the three wise men find Jesus in the stable. Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

Three Wise Kings Day (January 6th)

Finally, the Christmas tree and the decorations are left until January 6th. In Catholic belief, this is when the three wise kings came to visit baby Jesus with presents. 

Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar might literally visit Austrian homes. They then leave their mark: their initials and the year written in chalk above the house door, the K + M + B sign that is often seen by the doors of people in Austria.

January 6th is also Christmas eve for Orthodox believers and is celebrated by many people in Austria.

Austria is a small but very diverse country with countless traditions, especially during Christmas time. Did we miss your favourite one? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected] or leaving a comment.

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