The most important customs in February are connected with carnival, known in Western Austria as "Fasnacht", and elsewhere as "Fasching". The first traditional celebration is Candlemas, on February 2nd, with, for example, the Candlemas fiddling in Ligist (Styria). Strictly speaking, carnival commences with the ball season in January, involving dances at inns and hotel ballrooms as well as elegant balls in grand salons and famous buildings such as the Imperial Palace, the Musikverein and the State Opera in Vienna, where the world famous "Opernball" is held on the last Thursday of carnival. A special type of dance event is the fancy-dress ball.
Tyrolean "Fasnacht" and Ausseer Carnival
In the countryside, traditional processions of masked figures are still the most important events of the season, taking place on the last three days of carnival or Shrovetide (Shrove Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), which are often referred to as the "three holy Shrove days".
There are two key locations in Austria where such carnival processions take place, attracting many visitors: in the Tyrol (the "Tiroler Fasnacht”), and, in the Salzkammergut area (the "Ausseer Fasching" in Styria, and the "Ebenseer Fetzenfasching", or carnival of rags in Upper Austria).
The most famous Tyrolean Carnival celebrations take place in a few villages and towns, which take turns in the organization of these festivities. Imst organizes the “Schemenlaufen” (running of masks and ghosts) about every fourth year; Nassereith has the “Schellerlaufen” (running of masks with bells) about every third year; Telfs the “Schleicherlaufen” (derived form the verb “schleichen”, which means to sneak) every fifth year; Thaur the “Mullerlaufen” or “Huttlerlaufen” ("mullen" means to beat: the Muller beats the spectators on their backs, which is considered to bring luck; "Huttler" means rags, referring to the rag costumes of these masks), every third to fifth year; and Axams the “Wampelerreiten” (a reference in Tyrolean dialect to the plump figures, who usually expand their girth with straw stuffed into their shirts) about every fourth year.
Most of the masks worn during these processions are extraordinarily beautiful and belong to the so-called “Schönperchten” (beautiful winter masks). They are particularly characterized by their headdresses, employing inter alia artificial flowers, gold and silver-tinselled glass-balls, glass-feathers, yew-tree branches, mirrors, crowns etc. Also part of the processions are "Schiache" (ugly masks, where ugly has connotations of evil) such as the witches, as well as many other comical and traditional types (jesters, chimney-sweepers, bears, horses and many others). The masks pay tribute to important persons and admonish those who have broken rules and local mores. Honour and reproach relate, of course, strongly to local affairs, but general events (e.g. world politics) are also commented on.
All the processions mentioned above are public customs and are aimed at audiences which also include non-residents. The larger Tyrolean Carnival celebrations require months of preparation by local men and women, and need extensive rehearsal by the performers, who are exclusively male. Nowadays, most Tyrolean carnival processions take place on a Sunday during carnival. The main exception is the "Schellenschlagen" of Lans, which still takes place on the old, principal date of the Tyrolean Carnival, i.e. on the Thursday before Shrove Sunday which is named "Unsinniger" (foolish Thursday).
At the “Ausseer Fasching”, the carnival at Bad Aussee in the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut, the “Trommelweiber” (women with drums), are really men in white nightdresses, with night-caps and smooth, smiling masks. They march through the town playing the carnival march of Aussee. This tradition dates back at least to 1767. On Shrove Tuesday the beautiful “Flinserln” (tinsels) roam the streets, always in pairs (a man and a woman, the "woman" also being a man in disguise). They are named after the tinsel with which their white linen costumes are ornamentally decorated. The making of such a costume takes at least one whole year, often longer. The Flinserln wear a mask of cloth ("Gugel") over their heads with a beak-like nose which gives them a bird-like look. The “Flinserlzug” (procession of tinsels) consists of the “Flinserlmusik” (musicians, also in tinsels-costumes) and about 30 to 40 Flinserln all carrying white bags full of nuts which they distribute among children. On Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday, three to five groups of Faschingsbriefsänger (carnival singers reciting the carnival letters) recall comical and stupid events of the past year to the public.
The carnival at nearby Ebensee in the Upper Austrian part of the Salzkammergut culminates in the “Fetzenfasching” (carnival of rags), referring to the ragged outfit of the masks, on Shrove Monday. They use falsetto, pretending to imitate spooky voices, and wave old umbrellas called parapluies; for this reason their special march is called either “Fetzenmarsch” or “Parapluiemarsch”.
A more recent innovation in the Austrian carnival scene is the Villacher Fasching (Villach, Carinthia), with a carnival prince and princess, and a carnival guild. This type is based upon the Mother Karneval (Cologne, Germany), a form common in the Rhineland. The Mödlinger Fasching (Mödling, Lower Austria) is modelled upon the Villacher Fasching.
The “Blochziehen” (pulling a block or a log) traditionally takes place on Shrove Sunday or Shrove Tuesday in those villages and towns where no marriage ceremony has taken place during the past year. Therefore, the custom is sometimes interpreted as "compensating marriage". In some places, the link with marriage no longer stands, as the custom has developed into a general carnival procession as, for example, in Fiss in the Tyrol, where the block is pulled about every fourth year. In the Southern parts of the Burgenland and the adjoining Eastern region of Styria as well as in the Gailtal and the Lavanttal (valleys of the Gail and Lavant) in Carinthia the custom is still based on the original concept.
When Carnival ends (Shrove Tuesday at midnight), "Carnival", a puppet, is "buried" or "burned". The following day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, for which the traditional dish is the Heringschmaus (pickled herring salad) - and this is offered in many restaurants.