Monday, March 31, 2008

An authentic Austrian Easter

**The Austrian version of palm fronds for Palm Sunday: pussy willow!

Yes, yes, Easter has come and gone. But unfortunately I was not on top of things to give you a report on Austrian Christmas traditions, so although it's already late in the season, I am going to report on Austrian Easter traditions. This year I was fortunate enough to experience my first Austrian Easter--and an authentic one at that! What better way to celebrate the Resurrection than in a tiny village full of Catholic tradition in the Austrian countryside?

**The Fasching Tuesday parade in Graz.
It's probably fair to say that we first start observing Easter traditions with the day before Ash Wednesday--on Fasching, or carneval. (...Think Mardi Gras, Austrian style...) My school was off that day, so I went into town with some friends to watch the Fasching parade. If Halloween is an excuse for Americans to dress in costume, act silly, and party hard, then Fasching is the Austrian equivalent--on Fasching Tuesday the streets are bursting with children and adults alike in various stages of costume and disguise. Many of the adults' costumes get highly creative, and the children's are of your classic trick-or-treating variety. Businesses and schools (those in session, that is) close at noon and hoards of people spill into the streets to watch the parade--your typical variety show of bands, organizations, cartoon characters, traditionally-clad Austrians, etc. After the parade, if you can survive the crowd crush, you can find one of the several stands downtown giving away free Krapfen, or Austrian-style jelly-filled donuts of JFK fame. As Krapfen are pretty addictive, we had no problems helping the town rid itself of its donut-y surplus.
**The Americans with their Krapfen. Yum!

After the raucous partying of Fasching Tuesday begins the time of Lent, or as the German word so appropriately denotes, "fasting time." Austria is a historically Catholic country, and that tradition continues into today's society. The majority of people I meet would describe themselves as Catholic, meaning that they're from a Catholic family or went to mass (at least for holidays) as a child. According to the Austrian Roman Catholic church, 68.5% of Austrians at the end of 2005 identified themselves as Catholic; however, only 9% of the population goes to church every week. Based on observation and what many young people would tell you, that 9% is OLD. In fact, in 2005, 16% of the population was 65+ years you do the math.

That being said, Easter is one of the holidays that everyone likes to get in on. Even those who don't observe Lent may start preparing for Holy Week on Palm Sunday by bringing home a palm frond. But this term is deceiving--whereas you would see plenty of palm fronds in America on Palm Sunday, in Austria you will see pussy willow! This was actually a tricky play on words for me, as the German word for pussy willow (Palmkätzchen, or the decorative Easter variety of Palmbuschen or Palmstecken) contains what sounds like "palm." Naturally I assumed it to be like the palm of my own Palm Sundays, and I found myself in one of those confusing conversations with an Austrian friend explaining what "palm" meant in my country! It wasn't until days later I figured out that my friend was actually describing pussy willow and not just some fuzzy mutant growth of palm leaves. Back in the day, the pussy willow was blessed and then placed in convenient locations around the home and farm--in the attic, behind the crucifix, in the cattle stall, in the bee hives, scattered in the fields, etc.--to protect against afflictions such as illness, lightning, housefire, war, natural disasters, and so on. Part of the pussy willow's appeal as a seasonally holy plant was its nurtritional and healing powers; in times of want it could be dried and pulverized to be used as an additive in nutritionally inadequate meals. In this way, the pussy willow tradition in this area is both practical and celebratory.

And let us not forget one of the most prominent symbols of Easter: the Easter egg! Easter eggs--both dyed and decorated--are found in abundance here. The Easter market that sets up in the town square during Holy Week offers a wide variety of hand-painted and impressively hand-carved Easter eggs that can be hung as decoration. Traditionally Maundy Thursday is the day that the eggs are dyed and these particular eggs (as well as the ones dyed on Good Friday) are thought to have particular powers, especially in the area of love.
**And actual lamb, found near the Easter eggs in the Easter market! I like to think he was cute, and not meant for Easter lunch!

On Good Friday, the bells go silent. You may recall the post with all the town bells ringing out together--for three days they are still. As a sign of somberness and reverence the bells will cease on Good Friday, and it is said that the bells fly to Rome to be blessed. Out in the countryside, the old tradition sometimes lives on: during these three days, children run through the town with noisemakers at particular intervals to signal the time of day. Thus, the townspeople in the days before watches and cell phones could continue to know the time until the Resurrection, when the bells will ring again.

On Holy/Black Saturday around 11 am or so, the townsfolk walk through town to the church with baskets full of meat, eggs, and bread. There the priest will bless the food, which will then be eaten later as an Osterjause, or Easter snack. A local tradition in the town where I teach is also the distribution of the holy fire. At the blessing of the meat, eggs, and bread, the priest will also burn incense in a fire and bless the fire; the children of the town will then each take a bit of the holy fire in a bucket and go door to door, offering to light the fires in the ovens of the people in town. For this they are given a small monetary gift. Later that evening everyone will go to mass and celebrate the Resurrection. After mass, the Easter fires are lit--basically big bonfires, getting bigger and bigger the further out into the countryside you go! We must have seen about 3 or 4 bonfires on our way out to the village where we spent Easter, and on our arrival we were treated to the blessed Osterjause. At around 9:30 that night, a candle-lit procession of praying and singing townsfolk marched through the town, out to the next little village, and back again. More and more people joined the procession as it snaked its way in and out of town. After the procession, the bonfires continued to burn, the crosses on the hills were illuminated, and the celebration of the Resurrection was official.

On Easter morning, mass is held. The church in our little village was tiny (and was of course several hundred years old) but had an amazing choir. Songs were sung, prayers were said, and the normal Easter passages were read. And of course after church the traditional Easter lunch is to follow. A newer, less traditional Easter custom is that of the Easter bunny--yes indeed, even Austrian children get a visit from the Easter bunny. He comes early in the morning and hides all the colorful Easter eggs (real ones of course!) and sweets for the children to find. Our Easter lunch had to be hands down the most amazing Austrian food I've ever had--prepared by an honest to goodness Austrian grandma with love and about 50 years of cooking experience!

**The church where we went to Easter mass.

It was quite a treat to be able to celebrate with friends and see the way things are done here for one of the biggest celebrations of the year. There are so many meaningful parts to the Easter celebration here; and it seems like a holiday that, despite the falling number of church-goers, is still appreciated (for any number of reasons) by many.


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Bruce said...

I'm a little late in commenting, but am just getting back from constant travel - just arrived from Houston. Ooooo- I would pig-out so much on the free Krapfen, that I'd blow up like a balloon and love every minute of it. Thanks for the great descriptions! Love, DAD