Easter is a moveable feast, which depends on the first full moon in Spring, and, therefore, can fall either in March or in April. Customs connected with Lent and Easter are the most important ones in these months.
In Vorarlberg and in the adjoining Tyrolean region called Ausserfern, the “Funken” (sparkles) burn on the first Sunday in Lent, which is known as “Funkensonntag” (Sparkle Sunday). These special seasonal bonfires are known only in the western parts of Austria. On top of the woodpile is the sparkle-witch, a doll filled with gunpowder, which finally explodes. These and other seasonal bonfires are often linked with magic, as well as with fertility and health. Related activities, such as collecting wood, making the witch, baking the special doughnuts - "Funkenküechle" - etc. promote community spirit and communication.
For a few years, the “Funkenzunft” (Sparkle guild) of Dornbirn-Kehlegg in Vorarlberg has organized a “Funkenfeuer” (sparkle fire) in Vienna (19th district, Döbling, Himmelstrasse) on the Thursday before the second Sunday in Lent. The fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare) is already characterized by looking forward to Easter, as expressed in the liturgical rose colour. In former times, Laetare was a day on which people liked to pay visits (cf. "Mothering Day" in England). In Gmunden in Upper Austria, the day is called "Liebstatt-Sunday", the first part of this name referring to meeting in public. Members of the Costume Society present people in the streets with gingerbread, and mead is served in inns and cafes. The custom was established after World War II, with a historical connection to the Corpus Christi Brotherhood. Laetare is a traditional date for markets and fairs. On the Monday and Tuesday after Laetare-Sunday, one of the traditional rag-fairs of Graz (Fröhlichgasse) is held. The “Kalvarienbergmarkt” (Calvary fair) in Vienna at the parish church of Hernals (17th district) is a typical Lenten fair.
When Laetare is past, the Passion of Christ comes into focus. In the churches, the crosses are covered, and large Lenten cloths in the Presbytery block the view to the altar. In Carinthia, the traditional picture cloths illustrate scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and date back to the 15th century (for example, in the cathedral of Gurk). First introduced by a Westfalian bishop, these cloths are painted, unlike in Germany, where they are embroidered.
Since the 1970s modem Lenten cloths are increasingly in use, reflecting contemporary problems such as pollution control. In Vienna, every fourth Catholic parish already uses one.
On the Friday before Palm Sunday, called “Schmerzensfreitag” (Friday of Suffering), a ram is offered at Oetting near Oberdrauburg in Carinthia. The dressed-up ram is present at the High Mass, after which it is sold by auction, The proceeds go to the benefit of the church. The ram is not killed but used for breeding. The same custom is practiced in Obermauern and Kals (Eastern Tyrol).
Palm Sunday starts the Holy Week (in German "Karwoche", kara meaning grief, lament). In memory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, palm ceremonies and processions are held in every parish.
Striking differences can be observed in the form, size and decoration of the “Palmbuschen”, used in place of Palm tree branches. A traditional "Palmbuschen" includes branches from several different trees or bushes, such as sallow, boxtree, juniper, yew, holly, savin and oak. The branches are often decorated with fruit, ribbons and other items. At Hohenems and Lustenau (Vorarlberg) people use white fir and make the twigs into a crown. Among the decorations we find coloured paper chains, empty eggs, apples and pictures of Saints (called "Hörgli"). At Schnifis (Vorarlberg) the bunch is made of ten different kinds of plants. Thaur (Tyrol) is famous for the "little palm-donkeys" where the carved figures of Christ and the donkey are placed on a small wooden pedestal entwined with branches of ivy and sallow, supported by a pole. Long, tree-like branches of sallow called “Palmlatten” (palm staffs) are also carried in procession. In the Western parts of Carinthia the Palmbuschen are tied to poles, up to three metres high. In Radenthein (Carinthia) they are called “Palmbesen”, and carrying pretzels and little bags filled with seeds. East of Villach (Carmnthia), long rods of sallow (sometimes five metres high) are bound together, for example at St. Georgen im Lavanttal. Branches in the shapes of Hearts, crosses, arches and T-shapes can be found in St. Andra im Lavanttal, Ferlach and Eisenkappel (Carinthia). Bad lschl and St. Wolfgang (Upper Austria) use the terms “Stanglpalm” and “Palmstecken”.
The Passion plays are a form of live theatre. However, they are not performed during Lent or at Easter, and not every year, but at longer intervals. In Austria, Passion plays have been performed at Erl (Tyrol) from 1613, at Hinterthiersee (Tyrol) for 200 years, and at the Roman quarry of St. Margarethen (Burgenland). At Klingenbach (Burgenland), the Croatian minority presents a religious play in the Croatian language every fifth year in May.
The Mölltaler Passion, also known as "Kreuzziehen" (pulling of the cross), "Stumme Passion" (silent Passion) or "Leiden-Christi-Spiel" (play of the suffering of Christ), is not a Passion play in the ordinary sense of the word, but an almost silent imitation of the events of the Holy Week. Since 1891, it has been performed by the village people on Holy Thursday and Good Friday in the evenings.
The sufferings of Our Lord are also recalled to the minds of the people by singing customs as at Großarl (Salzburg), where the "Leiden-Christi-Singen" (singing of the sufferings of Christ) is held on Holy Thursday and Good Friday night, at Traunkirchen (Upper Austria) with its "Antlass-Singen" (the name referring to an old word for Holy Thursday which was the day when sinners were formerly dismissed from punishments by the Church), taking place on Holy Thursday night, and in some Styrian villages, such as Mooskirchen and Hitzendorf, with their "Maschta-Singen" (dialect form for "singing of the tortures" of Christ). The latter custom is a vestige of an old public procession of atonement, and the former is reminiscent of popular liturgical Passion plays.
Christ’s death also comes very much to the fore when people are confronted with the Holy Sepulchres, which were not so much in use after the Second Vatican Council, but are once more in favour since the 1980s. The Tyrol maintains a special tradition concerning these Holy Sepulchres, which are in baroque style. On Good Friday, it is traditional to have the “Heiligen-Grab-Schauen” (observation of the Holy Sepulchres). Some Viennese churches are returning to the tradition of celebrating mourning masses on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In the Haydn-Church (also Bergkirche, i.e. mountain church, situated on a little hill) at Eisenstadt (Burgenland), the oratotio "The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross" by Joseph Haydn is performed on Good Friday.
From Holy Thursday onwards, the church bells remain silent. People say that they “flew to Rome”. Until the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection on Holy Saturday boys wielding "Ratschen" (rattling instruments) and shouting rhymes replace the tolling of the church bells. At Plessnitz im Liesertal (Camthia), children carry out the "Tafelngehen", a rattling procession as a variant of the usual noisy customs of the Holy Week.
Easter Eggs: Coloured, Scratched And Painted
The secular symbol of Easter is the Easter Egg that is decorated in many ways - from simple ornaments to magnificent and highly artistic forms. Very often these eggs are produced for sale. Hardboiled coloured eggs - said to be brought by the Easter Bunny (“Osterhase”) - are used for playing and also eaten. Empty eggs decorate the Easter Tree ("Osterbaum") or Easter Bunch ("Osterstrauss"), an innovation since World War II. Special eggs are collector’s items, presented at Easter egg exchanges (“Ostereierbörsen”). At Stinatz (Burgenland), a Croatian community, traditional ornamentations are scratched into the dyed surface of the eggs (being either red, violet or black), the ornaments appearing in white and conveying a lace-like impression. The famous eggs of Stinatz are in great demand and are produced in big quantities all year round. They are not only sold locally or in Vienna, but also exported to the U.S.A. where many immigrants from Burgenland live. Of highest artistic value are the Ukrainian batik eggs made by members of the Ukrainian minority in Vienna.
The 4-Mountain Run
In April there are a couple of "Bewegungsbräuche" (customs connected with motion and exercise) of various kinds and origins. The quite unique "Vierbergelauf" (four mountain run) on the "Dreinagelfreitag" (Friday of the Three Nails, the second Friday after Easter) has a very long history and was interpreted in many (often wild) ways. The participants, or pilgrims, assemble the previous night for midnight mass in the little church on the Magdalensberg (Carinthia), then the 50 kilometres "run" begins. It leads via Zollfeld, the Ulrichsberg (short service), Karnberg and the Glantal to the Veitsberg (also Göseberg), Gradenegg and Sörg (short services) to the Lorenziberg, where it ends. The participants collect on their way various "mountain leaves" (ivy, evergreen, juniper, etc.), which are then used in a magical way to avert thunderstorms and lightning.