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Carnival in Austria

Carnival as a tourist magnet

The struggle between light and darkness and the transition from winter to spring comprise the roots of the carnival period in Austria, known as “Fasching”, which go back a long time. Countless traditions and ancient traditions come to life – much to the delight of the inhabitants and many thousands of tourists who travel to Tyrol, Upper Austria or Styria each year to experience the motley goings-on of the witches, demons and the devil.

The western part of Austria is considered to be the stronghold of Fasching. In this region some bizarre customs are cultivated. For example, think of the “Zuderer” from Weißenbach. On these days the “desecrators of corpses” are walking around – but luckily this only happens symbolically. During the carnival season, a coffin is regularly taken out of the earth, and a roaring “Zuderer ball” is celebrated using a straw doll. The “Schleicherlaufen”, a parade of people wearing extravagant costumes and hats which has taken place in Tyrol since 1890, has been given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. The special feature of this custom is the Schleicher hats which weigh up to eight kilograms each and are worn by men on their heads. In addition, they also have a heavy bell with them known as a “Schelle”, which is not permitted to ring even once during the entire march of about eleven hours. This is why the procession only moves ahead very slowly. The only exception is the Schleicher dance. The bells are allowed to ring during the leaps and jumps of the dance, but only in unison. By the way, the “Fetzenzug” carnival procession in the Upper Austrian town of Ebensee was also given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. The jesters and fools wear artistic and frequently very old wooden masks and women’s clothes adorned with rags and shreds.  

The “Wampelerreiten” in Axams, Tyrol is very popular with tourists. The “Wampler” stand for the ghosts of winter. They wear white linen shirts stuffed with hay and creepy wooden masks. In a long procession, they are knocked over by the riders of spring in “symbolic” duels and then banished from the area. The “Mullerlauf” taking place in the villages surrounding Innsbruck is not any less crazy. On the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, wildly disguised creatures walk through the picturesque towns. Their mission is what is called “Abmullen” or giving people a strong blow on their shoulder. However, it is worth the pain one feels because one blow by a “Mullern” supposedly preserves a person’s fertility and virility.

Styria boasts an ancient tradition of the carnival race or “Faschingsrennen”. The jesters run in traditional costumes through the Krakautal Valley and make quite a lot of noise in the process. The symbolic expulsion of the evil spirits already begins before the sun rises. The men stop at every farm and overcome obstacles and solve riddles. The race first ends after sunset at the highest-lying farm. The “Trommelweiber” or literally drumming women of Bad Aussee also want to banish the evil spirits. On Carnival or Rose Monday, the Monday before Lent, the men of the village parade around with drums and trumpets. A feast for the eyes is when they dress up as women wearing nightgowns and colorful masks.

On Shrove Tuesday the traditional “Flinslerumzug” is even nicer to watch. The jesters and fools move through the streets with sequin-embroidered costumes and masks. Some consider them to be the most beautiful carnival costumes in the country, and the procession is reminiscent of the hustle and bustle of the carnival in Venice. Moreover, lots of sweets are available for all the young and older visitors. One can also observe wonderfully crazy carnival practices in the federal province of Vorarlberg. The “Feldkircher Fastnachtsumzug” (carnival procession in Feldkirch) features people in colorful costumes coming out on the street and welcoming the spring with loud singing. It goes without saying that this is not only a festival of greeting but of scaring away. In this case it is done using torches which are lit on the entire mountain. 

Viennese ball tradition

Naturally people also celebrate extensively in the major cities of Austria. Vienna would not be Vienna if there were not any major balls in the carnival season. The most elegant of them all is of course the traditional Vienna Opera Ball, which has been held in its current form in the Vienna State Opera House for more than 60 years. More than 5,000 guests attending the ball drink 1,300 bottles of sparkling wine and champagne, 900 bottles of wine and 900 bottles of beer from 46,000 glasses which are served to them by about 320 waiters and waitresses. Some 150 debutant couples between the ages of 17 and 24 are allowed to take part in this glittering ball in the “world’s most beautiful ballroom.” And it is also important to mention that Vienna is the capital of “Krapfen” consumption. About one million of these tasty carnival pastries (filled doughnuts) are eaten just on Shrove Tuesday. Originally these doughnuts were baked on the last day before people began fasting in Lent. It was considered to be a reasonable way to use the remaining fat and eggs. In line with Christian tradition, both of these items can first be eaten again at Easter. Today people rarely fast in Austria. However, fortunately this sweet and sticky tradition of “Krapfen” has survived over the centuries.  

Salzburg is home to the oldest carnival guild in the country. Nevertheless, most of the festivities in the city are held in a more modern-day manner.  Countless parties take place on Rose Monday and Shrove Tuesday following the lively carnival processions. One rarely sees traditional wooden masks any more, but knights, pirates and computer game characters populate the streets and dance floors. Carnival is also extensively celebrated in Villach, which hosts the Villacher Fasching (Carnival in Villach). The partying and celebrations by the Carinthian jesters are even broadcast throughout the country by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF. The TV program offers a lot of music, parodies and a humorous review of the year. In contrast to Tyrol or Styria, carnival here is oriented to Rhenish practices, whose roots go back to the late Middle Ages and not to pagan traditions. During this time the population began to reproach authorities with the “Narrenspiegel” or “fool’s mirror” in order to voice their political grievances and denounce social evils. This is not the only thing they have in common. Similar to the “Alaaf” in Cologne or the “Helau” in Düsseldorf, the fools in Carinthia also have an exclamation to cry out loud, namely “Lei Lei”.


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