May 1st is the traditional date for erecting the maypole (“Maibaum”). The same day is called “Tag der Arbeit” (Labour Day), and is a national holiday since 1919. It is associated with mass marches (from 1890), organised by the labour movement. This social and political public custom has survived mainly in Vienna, where the route of the march follows the Ringstrasse, ending in front of the “Rathaus” (City Hall). It attracts an increasing number of visitors from abroad every year.
The maypole is erected during the night in secret, dedicated to girls, notables and innkeepers. In recent years, more and more official maypoles "for everybody" have been erected in villages, towns and municipal districts or quarters, often accompanied by an official ceremony with politicians giving speeches. In Scheibbs (Lower Austria), such a ceremony is linked with the traditional “Maibaumkraxeln” (climbing the maypole) and “Bandltanz” (ribbondance). Laxenburg (Lower Austria) organizes a big meeting of folk dancers. Just as impressive as the erecting of the maypoles is their removal at the end of May, often on the last Sunday of the month. The regions of Semmering, Schneeberg, Wechsel and Bucklige Welt (Lower Austria) are worthy of mention in this regard. The ceremonial “Maibaumumschneiden” (cutting of the maypole) is accompanied by music, performances by groups in traditional costumes, etc. Very often, figures wearing traditional masks (e.g. a jester, a doctor, a bear, etc.) enact scenes.
May or June
Ascension, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi are movable Catholic feasts, whose date depends on Easter.
Ascension reminds men that Christ ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection at Easter, and was previously re-enacted in many churches. Nowadays, this is done only in a few Carinthian villages, for example at St. Lorenzen in der Reichenau, the highest village in Austria (also called “Alpendorf” or Alpine Village). The statue of Christ is pulled up and out of the nave (through a hole) accompanied by angels; the custom therefore is also known as "Engele-Tanz" (dancing of the angels) or "Engele-Auffahrt" (ascension of the angels). For many parishes, Ascension is the day for First Communion.
Fifty days after Easter the church celebrates Whitsuntide or Pentecost, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. Whitsunday is the traditional date for confirmation (for example every year at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna). On Whitmonday, unique riding customs take place in Carinthia, such as he “Kranzelreiten” (riding for the wreath) at Weitensfeld im Gurktal, and the “Kufenstechen” or “stevanje” (stabbing the tub) at Feistritz an der Gail.
The latter is particularly notable for the involvement of the Slovenian minority living in the area; the singing is in Slovenian, and the so-called “Lindentanz” (linden dance) is performed in the striking costumes of the Gailtal, where many members of the Slovenian minority live.
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church
The biggest Catholic procession as far as demonstration of faith is concerned, is the “Fronleichnamsprozession” (Corpus Christi procession), celebrated on the second Thursday after Whitsuntide. The sumptuous and sometimes striking arrangements originate in practices of the Counter-Reformation aimed at promoting the Catholic faith and demonstrating the power and glory of the Catholic Church. Notables take part in the Corpus Christi procession,n as well as children in white, spreading flowers. In Vienna, the President of the Republic and members of the Federal Government take part in a ceremony at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
Young birches or large branches of birch trees are set up along the procession route. In the country, the people very often wear their traditional costumes. The marksmen and guards in their uniforms give salutes. The uniforms are rather splendid in Vorarlberg, in the Tyrol, and in Salzburg. Some localities show additional splendour: Bischofshofen, Hüttenau, Pfarrwerfen, Werfenweng, Mühlbach am Hochkönig (Salzburg), and Rohr im Gebirge (Lower Austria) by their flower-decorated poles (“Prangstangen”); Eibiswald and Deutschlandsberg (Syria) by flower carpets and carpet-like mosaics of flowers and grass. In Upper Austria, lake processions take place on the Hallstättersee and Traunsee, starting at nine o’clock in the morning from Hallstatt or from Traunkirchen. At Kirchberg, Westendorf, and Brixen im Thale in the Tyrolean Brixental, the Corpus Christi processions see the participants, including the priest, on horseback (“Antlassritte”).
On the river Salzach near Obemdorf (Salzburg), boatmen in their 18th century uniforms carry out the “Himmelbrotschutzen” (immersing of blessed, but not consecrated, hosts). The custom should not be seen as a pagan offering (to a river god etc.), but is probably in memory of the boatmen and raftsmen who found their deaths in the Salzach.
On the Saturday and Sunday after Corpus Christi (and also during the summer), the "Samsonumzug" (procession of Samson) is held at Tamsweg (Salzburg). This involves a giant figure about six metres high, named after the biblical Samson, famous for his superhuman strength. The Samson giant and other oversized figures came to Austria with the Capuchin monks of Bavaria, where gigantic figures have been used in processions for centuries. The Capuchin monks were very active during the Counter-Reformation. The procession of Samson at Krakaudorf (Styria) is held on the first Sunday in August (called “Oswaldisonntag” after St. Osvald), at Murau (Styria) on August 15th, the “Grosser Frauentag” or Great Day of Our Lady, as Assumption is referred to in many parts of Austria.
On the Sunday after Corpus Christi (called Corpus Christi Sunday) the “Fahnenschwingen” (swinging of the colours) in memory of the brave resistance offered against the rebel king Bethlen Gábor (1620) takes place at Neckenmarkt (Burgenland), carried out by young men in the uniforms of Hungarian soldiers of former times (“Heiducken”). Nikolaus Count Esterhazy granted the privilege of swinging the colours to the people of Neckenmarkt, and the silken Esterhazy banner, with its two-headed eagle, can still be seen today.