• Krampusse on their way through the snowy landscape / Gasteinertal

    A Raucous Christmas: Winter Traditions in Austria

    From the Krampus to Blossoming “Barbara Branches” – in Austria, many mystical traditions are still celebrated between Christmas and the New Year.

    Santa Claus and Krampus at the Salzburg Christmas Market

    Krampus, Nikolo and the „good children“

    Mystical Austria

    Christmas Season not only marks the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is also a time when quite a few heathen traditions are still celebrated all over the country. Some of them can be quite unsettling. 

    In 2014, when Christoph Waltz discussed the Krampus with Jimmy Fallon, the audience in the USA was astonished to learn that Austria’s peaceful Christmas Season also features figures of devils and demons clad in intricate masks and fur costumes walking around and threatening children with birch rods. Well, it is not quite as scary as all that. After all, the Krampus usually accompanies Nikolo, who brings nuts and sweet treats to all the “nice” children on December 6.

    • Rich in Culture and History. While Nikolo is clearly based on a Christian role model, St. Nicholas of Myra, the roots of the Krampus figure are somewhat of a mystery. It seems that the ancient Celts already tried to confront winter with horns, grimaces and furs - much like the Perchten, figures which are supposed to chase winter away. Even the Greeks had mythical creatures with horns and goat feet, such as the Satyrs of the Dionysus Cult. Horst Wierer, the expert on local traditions and archivist in the town of Hofgastein, traces the first written mention of a Krampus to the church treacher Augustinus around 400 AD. He writes that, around the time of Epiphany, young people marched through the streets, making a ruckus and wearing furs. Augustinus was very much for abolishing this heathen custom.

    • Lively Krampus Tradition. Instead, in many of Austria’s rural regions, the Krampus tradition is still very much alive. The Krampus usually appears on December 5, the day before Nikolaus Day. One of the most traditional forms of the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run) can be found in the Gastein Valley. Each of the Krampuses of the roughly 100 Krampus Groups, also called Passen, wears a traditional stone pine mask. Horns and furs stem from male goats and ibex of the local farmers. As usual, the furry creatures are walking in the company of Nikolo. Although in the Gastein Valley, the Krampus does not represent evil, it is supposed to chase it away. The rough companions try to wrestle each other down using only their shoulders, a practice called “Rempeln,” and symbolizes triumph over evil.

    Snow-covered village Lech Zürs am Arlberg / Lech at Arlberg

    Twelve Days of Christmas

    Spooky Start to the New Year

    The Twelve Days of Christmas are known in Austria as the “Rauhnaechte,” a time of mystical traditions. These are the nights between Christmas and January 6, although the exact number of days varies from region to region. In some areas, “Losen” already starts on the longest night of the year, the Thomasnacht from the 20th to the 21st of December. 

    “Losen” stems from the dialect word for “listening.” Tradition says that by listening closely, you can learn about your fate for the coming year. Some people meet at remote crossroads to listen. It is not easy to interpret the various sounds. For example, if you suddenly hear happy singing, a wedding is in the cards. The sound of a saw, on the other hand, is said to foretell a death in the near future.

    Fumigate during christmas time

    Smoking out the „Wilde Jagd“

    Fragrant Winter Tradition

    The name “Rauhnächte” probably has its origin in the German name for smoke. And indeed, especially in the countryside, one of the most common heathen traditions that still survive today is the “Räuchern.” At least during one of the nights between Christmas and Epiphany in January, incense is burned in the farmhouse and stables.

    The burning of incense is said to protect the animals from the bad influence of the Rauhnächte. Folklore has it that around midnight, animals can speak and foretell the future. As tempting as it sounds, one should better not try to listen, as that would spell certain doom - so the story goes. To ward off the worst, aside from burning incense, it is also customary to swallow “Schluckbildchen,” little notes depicting the Virgin Mary.

    • Who is afraid of the „Wilden Jagd“? The Rauhnächte have been regarded as an especially dangerous and ominous time. This stems from the old Germanic mythology where the “Wilde Jagd,” was active during this period of time: a whole host of demons flying through the night skies and sowing disaster wherever they went. In many regions of Austria, people are still hesitant to hang laundry to dry between Christmas and New Year because the “Wilde Jagd” could get caught up in it.

    • Another figure that is widely feared is the „Habergoaß“, a goat-like demon who is represented during the Perchten runs in SalzburgerLand by a figure with a large bucket on its back. It is said that the horned creature uses it to kidnap little children.

      Branches for Luck. The time around Christmas is not only a time of fear, of course. There are also a number of beautiful heathen traditions: The mistletoe is a basic ingredient for magic brews not only in the famous Asterix comic strips. In Germanic mythology, it was a symbol of luck. 

    • This is why they are suspended from door frames during the Christmas season. Kissing under the mistletoe is said to bring luck for a happy future together.

      Blossoming Branches. On December 4th, the day of Saint Barbara, branches from fruit trees are cut and placed in a vase. If all branches bloom on Christmas Eve, it is said to foretell many blessings for the New Year.

    •                         Barbara branches
    •                         Themed hike with smoking in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee
    •                         Barbara branches
    •                         Chicken in the barn

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