Weird Austrian New Year traditions

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Weird Austrian New Year traditions
Prosit in the New Year! Photo: P.S. Krøyer, 1888

Austrians love to party, but some of their traditions seem a little weird to expats. The Local takes a look at how this small Central European country brings in the new year.


Like most countries, Austrians love to make a lot of noise at New Year's eve, so expect many loud explosions and fireworks.  Pet owners should be careful to ensure that cats and dogs are well-prepared and protected from the trauma of fireworks.

Visitors to Vienna may wish to enjoy the New Year in St. Stephen's Square (Stephansplatz), but be warned, it will be extremely crowded, so agoraphobes and ochlophobes are advised to steer well clear of the event.  Usually, the crowds are so bad that the U1 station at Stephansplatz is shut down for the evening, so ensure your travel plans take this into account.

Pope Sylvester.  Photo: San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Holy Sylvester

The last night of the year is known in Austria as the Holy Sylvester, which is traditionally the night of fools, frolics and good times. According to legend, the saint of this day Pope Sylvester I, healed people of leprosy, and baptized the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

It was at this point in history that the fate of the Christian Church turned as persecutions ended and the Occident was won for Christianity. Pope Sylvester led the Church from 314 until his death, December 31, 335 into a period of relative peace.

A Bleigiessen set.  Photo: Micha L. Rieser

Molybdomancy (Bleigießen)

At the end of December, large numbers of Austrians go to Christmas markets, and buy large spoons with half a dozen or so small silvery packages.  No, they're not scoring crystal meth or heroin wraps -- rather, they're participating in an ancient ritual that has its origins in classical Greece.

The packages are small objects made from tin or lead, and the spoon is used to melt the metal into a liquid, which is then dropped into a bowl of water.  The resulting shape is then examined, and predictions can be made about what's coming up in the new year.

It's a form of scrying, using molten metal to trigger the unconscious.  There are dozens of different possible interpretations, but some of the more popular ones include:

Interpretation of the lead figures Meaning
Acker (field) luck and happiness
ähren (grain head) your wishes will be fulfilled
Adler (eagle) profit in your job
Amboss (anvil) be careful with your job
Anker (anchor) you will receive help from others
Apfel (apple) your trust will be broken
Auto (car) promising venture or enterprise
Automat (vending machine) be careful with spending
Baum (tree) growth in your capabilities
Becher (mug) luck and health
Beil (axe) disappointment in love
Besen (broom) conflict or small argument
Beutel (bag) unexpected luck
Biene (bee) prospect of marriage
Blumen (flowers) new friendships will develop
Bock (ram) expect an inheritance
Bombe (bomb) you will escape danger
Boten mit Brief (messenger with letter) you will receive important news soon
Brille (glasses) you will live to be old
Brücke (bridge) you will form new ties
Brunnen (fountain) deep love for everyone
Burg (fortress) you wish for change
Chrysanthemen (Chrysanthemum) someone needs your help
Degen (sword) cutting change
Denkmal (monument) you overestimate yourself
Dolch (dagger) you will be victorious
Dreieck (triangle) finances improve
Ei (egg) your family will grow
Eidechse (lizard) big annoyance that goes away quickly
Eimer (pail) satisfaction with relationships
Eisenbahn (train) departure from a friend
Elefant (elephant) you have good powers of comprehension
Engel (angel) good will come to you
Erdwall (earthen dam) you will be successful only through trouble
Fahne, wehend (waving flag) your heart and thoughts are in different places
Falke (falcon) someone is jealous of you
Faust (fist) you feel that you have been pushed back
Feder (feather) change in your home
Felsen (cliffs) much work to come
Fische (fish) people are talking about you
Flakon (phial, small bottle) don't let anyone "pull your leg"
Flasche (bottle) happy times to come
Flugzeug (airplane) good luck in open competition
Frosch (frog) you will eventually win much money in a lotterie
Gabel (fork) quarrels and arguments
Galgen (gallows) be wary of false friends
Garten (garden) new love in your path
Gebüsch (bush) acknowledge the accomplishments of others
Geweih (antlers) misfortune in love
Gewichte (scales) success in business
Gitarre (guitar) secret longings
Glocke (bell) inheritance coming into view
Gondel (gondola) an adventure is approaching
Hahn (rooster) be careful of fire
Haken (hook) obstacles will come into your path
Hammer (hammer) you will get your way
Hase (rabbit) hang onto your luck
Haus (house) your ventures will go well
Hose (pants) you will be ridiculed
Hufeisen (horseshoe) good business
Hut (hat) good news
Igel (hedgehog) people are envious of you
Insel (island) you are lonely
Kahn (boat) good luck in your intentions, plans
Käfer (beetle) nice experience in love
Kamel (camel) new duties
Kanne (jug) unpleasantness
Kanzel (pulpit) you like to be right
Kapelle (chapel) longing for peace and quiet
Karpfen (carp) unexpected raise in salary
Karussell (merry-go-round) dumb jokes from acquaintances
Kegel (ninepin) be careful in business
Kelch (chalice) your future will be happy
Kirche (church) you will start a household soon
Klee (clover) satisfaction and luck
Korb (basket) lucky in love
Kranz (wreath) reconciliation in your circle of friends
Krone (crown) you will use official position
Kuchen (cake) festivity is coming
Kugel (ball) don't take your bad mood out on others
Kuh (cow) cure from sickness
Lanze (lance) someone wants to fight with you
Leiter (ladder) advancement in your job
Leiter, zerbrechen (broken ladder) make decisions faster
Leuchter (candlestick) you will "see the light" (understand, get an idea)
Leuchtturm (lamppost) don't give up on your goals
Löffel (spoon) people are talking about you
Mauerr (wall) your perseverance will pay off
Mond (moon) you may expect honor
Nagel (nail) better times coming
Nest mit Eiern oder Vögeln (nest w/eggs or birds) a happy home will soon be started
Orgel (organ) you'll play your way through life
Palme (palm tree) a long-cherished wish will be fulfilled
Pantoffel (slipper) you will get married soon
Peitsche (whip) you need a strong hand
Pistole (pistol) you will cheat in love
Pfeife (pipe) be careful—danger approaches
Pflug (plow) you must work harder at your job
Rad (wheel) big changes coming
Regenschirm (umbrella) be hopeful, and avoid unpleasantness
Säge (saw) a separation, which is advantageous, is coming
Säule (pillar) a wish will remain unfulfilled
Segelboot (sailboat) good advancement in your job
Sichel (sicle) don't scorn the little joys of life
Schere (scissors) important decisions coming
Schaukel (swing) make up your mind
Schlange (snake) people are envious of your success
Schlitten (sled) make your relationships fit yourself
Schluessel (key) let others keep their secrets
Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweep) luck in love
Schraubstock (bench vice) hang on tight to what you have
Schwamm (sponge) clean your soul
Schwein (pig) luck in play, games
Schuh (shoe) you'll have to do a lot of running around soon
Spinne (spider) your luck hangs on a silken thread
Storch (stork) you will travel
Stock (stick, staff) your life will turn around
Tänzerin (dancer) don't take life so seriously
Tisch (table) soon you will be invited to a party
Teller (plate) you'll have opportunity for generosity
Tor (gate) you'll change your place of residence
Trauring (engagement ring) you'll be engaged soon *OR*
warning of upcoming escapades
Treppen (steps) new assignments await you
Trompete (trumpet) you will soon gain public office
Trichter (funnel) protect your strength
Tunnel (tunnel) you will recover from a horrible fright
Turm (tower) have more courage in your ____ _______
Urne (urn) don't grieve about the past
Vogel (bird) good luck coming
Wiege (cradle) you will take part in a baptism
Zaun (fence) you have to explain a misunderstanding
Zeppelin (zeppelin) gleaming advancement opportunities await you
Zylinder (top hat) serious matters ahead

Half the fun consists in arguing with family members about the resemblance of the shape to one of the listed objects - and of course, interpretations may vary as to what an object might mean.

Sometimes it's helpful to hold the resulting cast up near a candle, and study its shadow on the wall.  If you're really keen, it might help to recite this poem too:

In der Silvester-Nacht
wird das Blei zum Schmelzen gebracht.
Es wird gekippt in Wasser, kalt und klar;
rate, was stellen die Figuren dar?
Schau sie an, so wie sie sind;
rätst die Gestalt du nicht geschwind.
Halt sie hinters Licht,
das Schattenbild dir mehr verspricht.
Kommt es dir nicht in den Sinn,
schau auf dieses Büchlein hin.
Es sagt dir frank und frei,
so allerlei...!

"Dinner for One"

"The same procedure as every year, James."  This English line has become a familiar catchphrase in the German-speaking world. It's part of an annual German custom that began in 1963 when German TV first broadcast a 14-minute British stage sketch entitled "Dinner for One."  

Almost no-one in Britain is familiar with the program, so visitors and expats are usually very puzzled when their Austrian hosts and friends insist on watching this obscure piece of English music-hall theater.

There are two versions floating around - the original version from 1963 in black and white, and a remake in colour using the same actors a few years later.  We recommend watching the older version, to appreciate the full ambience.

If you are having dinner at this time of year a dish of lentil soup with Wiener Würstchen is popular, especially since it can be prepared well in advance.

Are you fond of fondue?  Photo:  Hic et nunc/Wikimedia

Neuenburger Fondue

Another popular dish at New Year is a meat or cheese fondue, introduced from Switzerland.  Here's a popular recipe:

300 g Emmentaler
300 g Greyerzer
1 clove garlic
1/2 l dry white wine
4 table spoons Kirschwasser (German cherry brandy)
2 tea spoons starch 
freshly ground pepper, nutmeg
2 sticks French bread or baguettes

Grind cheese by hand or with a grinder, rub Fondue kettle with garlic, add white wine and place on fire, slowly add cheese and stir continuously until melted. Mix starch and Kirschwasser (cherry brandy), pour into cheese mass and mix, add pepper and nutmeg to taste. Cut bread ahead of time into cubes, dip with Fondue sticks. Dry white wine can also be served.

The Feuerzangenbowle with a burning Zuckerhut.  Photo: Kore Nordmann/Wikimedia

Fire-tongs Punch (Feuerzangenbowle)

Austrians love to set things on fire, and this special New Year's drink is no exception.  The Feuerzangenbowle is a traditional German alcoholic drink for which a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine, which was made popular by the 1944 German film of the same name. 

Feuerzangenbowle is prepared in a bowl, similar to a fondue set, which usually is suspended over a small burner (rechaud). The bowl is filled with heated dry red wine spiced with cinnamon sticks, clovesstar anise and orange peel, similar to mulled wine.

The Feuerzange was originally a pair of tongs, but nowadays it is common for a purpose-designed metal grate mounted on top of the bowl to hold the Zuckerhut (sugarloaf or literally "sugar hat"), a sugar cone around seven inches long.

The sugar is soaked with rum and set alight, melting and caramelizing. The rum should have at least 54% alcohol per volume and be at room temperature in order to burn properly.

More rum is poured with a ladle until all the sugar has melted and mixed with the wine. The resulting punch is served in mugs while the burner keeps the bowl warm. For some the ceremony is more important than the drink itself, celebrating the gathering of friends and conveying a notion of Gemütlichkeit.

2 bottles white wine
1/2 lemon1 orange
1/2 bottle dry sherry
1/2 bottle arrack
1 sugar loaf
2 cloves, 1 stick cinnamon

Press lemon, orange, cloves and cinnamon into wine and bring almost to a boil; place sugar loaf over kettle, either on a special holder or on two metal rods. Pour arrack on sugar and light with a match, keep dripping arrack on flaming sugar until all sugar has dissolved and dripped into the wine. Red wine and rum may also be used in place of arrack.

Guten Rutsch!  

The Local wishes all our readers a good trip into the New Year!



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