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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

What you need to know about carnival in Austria

Also known as 'Fasching', carnival in Austria is celebrated with events, parades and some very special food. Here's what you need to know about the festivities.

Austrian folk group Schellenschlager member in costume
Costumes and masks are everywhere at Austria's carnival events. AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR

Carnival is a festive period celebrated worldwide, and even if some of the most traditional or famous parties happen in Rio, Cologne or Venice, Austria also has its share of great (and old!) traditions and symbols. 

The carnival period in Austria has no fixed days, as it’s determined by when Easter falls, like in other countries. In Austria, the celebrations typically happen from the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday to Ash Wednesday – this year that’s Saturday, February 26th until Wednesday, March 2nd. 

The dates may vary, but the much-beloved traditions tend to stay the same with many focused on “scaring away” winter and welcoming spring. 

Carnival food

It has to be apricot jam

These jam-filled doughnuts are a symbol of carnival. The typical Viennese Faschingskrapfen will have a sticky apricot jam inside, and this filling should make up at least 15 percent of the entire doughnut, according to strict Krapfen standards. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Faschingskrapfen

Krapfen is also an excellent example of the differences between German and Austrian German. For instance, in an Austrian bakery, it’s best not to call the Krapfen by its German name: Berliner Pfannkuchen.

But there’s a lot more to carnival than food; for many people, carnival just wouldn’t be carnival without the dressing up.

At the peak of the celebrations, usually on Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday), there are several parties all over the country, with many people donning all kinds of witty and creative costumes and intricate masks informed by local traditions.

But while the celebrations share a common theme, events differ across the country with each Austrian state having its own traditions. 

Traditions around Austria

Styria, for example, is known for its annual carnival race, the Faschingsrennen, where participants wearing traditional costumes run up to the highest spot in town to “scare away the winter” – loud noises are part of the scare tactics, of course. 

Tyrol has some rather eyebrow-raising traditions, featuring figures like “Roller” (named after the costume’s rotating bells) or “Scheller” (who carries big bells). The two different characters symbolise elegance and strength and wear massive crowns while walking around loudly ringing the bells on their belts.

The traditional masked Schleicherlaufen parade is also in Tyrol and is held every five years. The “Schleicher” are the 40 men who parade in huge hats, some of which weigh as much as 8 kilogrammes.

The parade has taken place in the state since 1890 and was given Unesco World Cultural Heritage status in 2010. 

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Some local events, such as the Blochziehen, take place only every four years – the next one is in 2023. Here, masked villagers carry a 30-metre-long pine log through town to symbolise the coming of spring. 

Tyrol has so many quirky events that it would be hard to list them all, but the Wampelerreiten in Axams near Innsbruck is also very popular, with the Wampeler (meaning fat-belled) – young men wearing black hats, masks and padded white shirts – taking part in a battle against the Riders who try to dirty the Wampeler’s white shirts.

According to tradition, the fewer shirts that get soiled in the battle, the better the harvest will be.

Sadly, the 2022 celebration has been cancelled.

Vorarlberg is famous for its Feldkircher Fastnachtsumzug, a procession of people wearing brightly coloured costumes who welcome spring with loud singing and traditional songs. They scare away winter using torches creating beautiful visuals. 

Upper Austria is known for the Ebensee Carnival Parade, which takes place on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday. The procession is attended by people wearing older women’s clothes, a rag hat, and a creepy-looking wooden mask. It’s all in good fun, though, and the celebrations usually last until late at night – the party and festival became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011.

Carinthia is home to the Villacher Fasching with parties that are even broadcast by Austrian TV channel ORF. You will often hear the traditional carnival exclamation “Lei Lei!,” based on traditions from Middle Ages and similar to the famous “Alaaf!” in Cologne. 

Couples line up at the annual Opera Ball in Vienna, Austria on February 20th, 2020. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Vienna’s carnival typically coincides with the capital’s ball season. The city may not be home to the old carnival traditions of Austria’s western villages, but there is still much beauty and entertainment to be seen and had here.

The most famous ball is the Vienna Opera Ball, which has been held in the Vienna State Opera House for over 60 years. Every Viennese will tell you that this is the “world’s most beautiful ballroom,” with debutant couples dancing and more than 5,000 guests attending. 

The Krapfen is also most famous in Vienna and it is consumed in copious quantities here. It’s a tradition that’s taken seriously, too, and the pastries are expected to have at least six fresh egg yolks in every kilogramme of flour, the only way for it to be fluffy on the inside but crispy on the surface – just as it should be.

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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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