Editions:  Austria · Denmark · France · Germany · Italy · Norway · Spain · Sweden · Switzerland

Weird Austrian New Year traditions

Share this article

Prosit in the New Year! Photo: P.S. Krøyer, 1888
10:59 CET+01:00
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!

Get notified about breaking news on The Local

Share this article