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AUSTRIAN TRADITIONS

Austrian folklore: Myths and legends you should know about

Every country has its own folklore and Austria is no exception. Get ready to impress your Austrian friends with knowledge about the country’s unique and mysterious legends.

People gather around a bonfire in the early evening
Austria has many traditions stemming from folklore. Image by Angelika Warmuth / dpa / AFP.

Many newcomers to Austria will be surprised to discover the many myths, legends and superstitions that exist in the Alpine Republic.

Some say it’s because Austria is a Catholic country, whereas others say it goes back to Austria’s strong farming roots and close connection to nature.

Whatever the reason, there is a wealth of folklore that still exists today. Here are some of the most prominent Austrian legends and the stories behind them.

The Nachtkrapp

Nachtkrapp – or night Raven, in English – is a giant nocturnal bird-like creature in Austrian and South German folklore. The legend is that the Nachtkrapp hunts at night and is used to scare children into going to bed on time.

The Nachtkrapp is described as having holes for eyes that are said to represent death. Likewise, if someone looks into the holes in the Nachtkrapp’s wings they will become unwell.

The dark version of the Nachtkrapp story is that if a child witnesses the bird they will be abducted and taken back to the nest to be eaten.

The lighter version is that the Nachtkrapp will place children in a bag and fly away. Either way, quite scary stuff for kids.

READ MORE: Aberglaube: Eight strange Austrian superstitions foreigners should know about

Not all stories about the Nachtkrapp are about kidnapping though. In Burgenland there are stories about the Guter Nachtkrapp (the goodnight Raven) which flies into children’s rooms and sings them to sleep.

The old wives’ tales about Nachtkrapp are believed to originate from rook infestations in Central Europe that became an existential threat to farmers.

The Krampus

Anyone that has spent a Christmas season in Austria will have heard about the Krampus, but for anyone that might be scratching their head at the name, here’s a quick explainer.

The Krampus is a horned, half-demon figure that is common in folklore across many Central European countries, especially in Alpine regions. He accompanies St. Nicholas, who is the patron saint of children in Catholicism and brings presents at Christmas.

READ ALSO: Here comes Santa Claus (with his satanic sidekicks)

However, just as St. Nicholas rewards children for good behaviour, the Krampus punishes kids if they have behaved badly throughout the year. According to folklore, this is done by chasing children through the streets and taking them to his lair in the mountains (again – another kidnapping tale).

There are several theories about the origin of the Krampus figure, but it is likely that the legend is based on early mythology as the figure has similarities to creatures in both Norse and Greek mythology. 

Today, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5th), young men still dress up in Krampus costumes and run around towns and cities to celebrate the story of the Krampus – and scare a few children in the process.

Participants celebrating the legend of the Krampus. Photo by Peter Kneffel / dpa / AFP.

The Kasmandl

The Kasmandl is a small creature with grey hair and a wrinkled face that lives in the Austrian mountains.

During the summer months, it is believed the Kasmandl lives outdoors to protect the environment and the dairy cows that graze on the mountain meadows. He survives by eating plants and small animals, like frogs and snakes.

Then, when the shepherds and dairy maids leave their mountain huts in the autumn to go back to the valleys, the Kasmandl moves into one of the vacant huts for the winter to act as a caretaker.

But the Kasmandl just has one request – the shepherds must leave some supplies for the winter, such as cheese, bread and chopped firewood. Otherwise the Kasmandl will fly into a rage and scare the cows, as well as terrorise the farmers.

Tradition dictates that mountain huts should be empty from November 11th (Harvest Festival) to April 24th (St. George’s Day). The Kasmandl is then kicked out of the hut in the spring by a procession of traditionally dressed folk playing out of tune instruments.

The spring procession is still celebrated today in some mountain villages in Austria.

Sonnwendfeuer

Sonnwendfeuer (which means “fire of the solstice” in English) usually takes place on 21 June to celebrate the longest day of the year and involves lighting hundreds of fires along the mountain peaks to create a midsummer bonfire.

It’s a long tradition in Tyrol, dating back to Mediaeval times and, as with most long-held traditions, comes with its own myths and superstitions.

The custom of Sonnwendfeuer started in the 14th Century and originally marked the beginning of the harvest. It involved a community celebration with drinks and bonfires.

FOR MEMBERS: Austria’s Sonnwendfeuer: What is it and why is it celebrated?

The fires were believed to increase the power of the sun and keep evil away from people and animals. It was also believed that Sonnwendfeuer would ward off storms and make the grass on the meadows grow strong.

Over the years though, the meaning of Sonnwendfeuer has shifted and the fires are no longer associated with farming, the harvest or superstitions. Instead, the focus is mainly on the solstice.

Today, Sonnwendfeuer, also known as “Feuerbrennen” or “Johannesfeuer”, is a family-friendly event in the Austrian Alps and Bavaria in Germany. 

In smaller communities, locals gather in groups to light fires on the mountains and have drinks, but there are also more formal events organised by tourism boards.

Do you have a favourite Austrian folklore or tradition that we’ve missed here? Get in touch to tell us about it: [email protected]

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CULTURE

Muttertag: How does Austria celebrate Mother’s Day?

Like many other countries, Austrian Mother's Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of May - but the country adds its spin to the holiday.

Muttertag: How does Austria celebrate Mother's Day?

Mother’s Day is a celebration honouring mothers and maternal bonds, very much connected to women’s movements all over the world. In many countries, including Austria, the date is celebrated on the second Sunday of May, when mothers can expect to receive presents and breakfast in bed.

Not all countries celebrate the date on the same day, though. In Norway, for example, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday of February, while Ireland and the United Kingdom celebrate Mothering Sunday on the fourth Sunday in Lent – which was March 27th this year.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about parental leave in Austria

Other countries, including Spain and Portugal, celebrate it on the first Sunday of May. Still, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland actually introduced the holiday on the same day as the first celebration in the United States – where the “modern version” of the date began in 1907.

When did Austria start celebrating Mother’s Day?

Muttertag was first introduced in Austria in 1924 after an initiative by women’s rights activist Marianne Hainisch.

Born near Vienna in 1839, she was a well-educated woman who defended women’s rights to proper education. Hainisch famously wrote the article On the Education of Women, calling for the City of Vienna to start school classes for girls. She created classrooms for girls with private funds, which was recognised by the city of Vienna in 1981.

Her efforts continued, and she campaigned for women to be allowed to attend higher education and became a leader in the suffrage movement in Austria.

Finally, she became one of the Austrian Women’s Party founders in 1912. In 1920, her son, Michael Hainisch, became the first President of Austria after the end of the first World War and the fall of the monarchy.

How do Austrians celebrate it?

The celebrations may seem familiar to many people around the world. Small children will prepare handmade presents for their moms in kindergartens or learn sweet songs to sing to them on Sunday.

Families will prepare breakfast in bed for the mother and give her chocolate and flowers.

READ ALSO: 26C: Summery weather for Austria after rainy weekend

However, flowers are almost a mandatory present on many holidays, including Mother’s Day in Austria. There is a reason why flower shops were considered “essential shops” during lockdowns and allowed to stay open.

While in some countries celebrations might take place with just a small present or chocolate, Austrians will very likely bring flowers to their mothers (as they do on Valentine’s Day, Women’s Day, and many other celebrations and birthdays).

Additionally, Austria’s love of nature and culture also shines on this date. It’s common for people to spend the Sunday days – especially since the celebration falls in mid-spring – out and about.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

Families will take the day to go with the mothers hiking around towns or for a walk in a park. The alpine country is also famous for its cultural offers. Mother’s Day is an excellent opportunity to take moms out for the theatre or other cultural events.

Every family has its own tradition, though, as the idea is to spend the date celebrating mothers the way they’d prefer.

The commercial side of it

Like in much of the world, companies have hijacked the date, of course. Starting about one week before Mother’s Day – sometimes as early as a month, companies in Austria will start advertising products, discounts, and offers.

Since it falls on a Sunday, most of the stores and shops will be closed on the date, even though it is not a bank holiday in Austria.

READ ALSO: Why everything in Austria is closed on Sundays – and what to do instead

However, the idea is to introduce offers for presents bought beforehand, usually typical and cliche things.

Restaurants and bars, which do stay open on Sundays, will have special menus and discounts for families.

Useful vocabulary: different ways to wish a happy Mother’s Day in German

Alles Liebe zum Muttertag
Einen fröhlichen Muttertag
Alles Gute zum Muttertag

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