See in the New Year with the ringing of church bells and swinging to a waltz
January 1st, New Year. In Vienna, New Year is celebrated at midnight with a big festival in St. Stephen’s Square and in the streets of the Inner City. A map and a programme of the events are published in the daily newspapers.
A large bell named the “Pummerin” tolls in the north tower of St Stephen’s Cathedral. The Pummerin, three metres high and weighing 21 tons, is the second largest bell in the world. In 1952, its transfer to Vienna from St. Florian in Upper Austria took place with great pomp and ceremony. Cast from Turkish canons, the original Pummerin tolled for the first time in 1712 at the coronation of Emperor Charles VI, father of the famous Empress Maria Theresa. In 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, the bell was destroyed during a fire in St. Stephens Cathedral.
The New Year's Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from the Great Music Hall of the “Musikverein” is broadcast on radio in the morning by ORF (the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) , and at noon by ORF-TV, which relays the concert to numerous broadcasters worldwide for local transmission. Tickets for the concert must be reserved a very long time in advance. The Vienna New Year’s Concert has been a tradition in the city since the 18th century, while the equivalents in the countryside are the New Year fiddlers and brass bands.
The period around January 6th (Twelfth Night or Epiphany) is marked by various colourful customs throughout Austria.
Glöcklerlauf: The “Glöckler” derive their name from the custom of knocking at doors (the verb "glocken" means "to knock"). Traditionally, they carry large bells attached to their belts and wear large ornate headdresses, put together with great artistry. The headdresses, in a multitude of shapes and sizes, are illuminated from within, and decorated with colourful motifs (reminiscent of stained glass windows). During the “Glöcklerlauf” (Glöckner run), they proceed through the town in their headgear and, in return for their Happy New Year greetings, are rewarded with a special doughnut, the "Glöcklerkrapfen”. The run typically takes place on January 5th (late afternoon till midnight) in Upper Austria in the towns of Ebensee, Bad Ischl and Gmunden, and in Styria in the towns of Stainach, Altaussee and Bad Aussee.
Perchten: The “Perchten” run takes place on January 6th from Badgastein to Böckstein and on January 7th from Badgastein to Hofgastein. The procession consists of twelve Kappenperchten (beautiful large headdresses), two Turmperchten (pointed headdresses, two to three meters hight, in the shape of a tower or “Turm”), "Wildperchten", "Jagdperchten", and "Fetzenperchten" (other traditional headdresses invoking motifs of game, hunting and rags), as well as their "Gesellinnen" (companions), young men dressed in regional female costumes. They all run in single file. It is believed that the quality and abundance of the next harvest, as well as the well-being of the people, are dependent on the performances of the Perchten.
January 6th and 7th are also the days when the “Stelzentänzer” (dancers on stilts), all dressed in white, perform at Unken in Salzburg. Their stilts make them look supernatural by increasing their height (in the same way as the oversized headdresses mentioned above). People believe that they bring luck.
On January 5th at Unken and Stuhlfelden, both in Salzburg, there is a chance to encounter the “Tresterer”, who wear eye-catching masks and perform a special kind of dance, said to originate in the practice of threshing grain.
Three Kings: A special custom at Epiphany is the ride of the Three Kings. On January 5th and 6th, at Neukirchen near Altmünster in Upper Austria, we encounter biblical royalty on horseback. They are benevolent not only to the locals, but also towards all drivers they meet, whom they wish a Happy New Year. At Scheibbs, in Lower Austria, the riders also visit the mechanical Christmas crib in the town church.
“Sternsingen” (star singing) is another traditional custom of the day. In Heiligenblut am Grossglockner (Carinthia), five groups of grown men without masks carrying a pole with an illuminated revolving star wander from the evening of January 5th to January 6th from the village to the surrounding mountain farms. As they do so, the groups sing the "Three Kings song" (fourteen stanzas) finishing with good wishes for the New Year. At Gmunden in Upper Austria, the Epiphany carols are sung in the evening of January 6th in front of the Three Kings’ Altar (by Thomas Schwanthaler, 1678) of the town church. At Ried im Innkreis, also in Upper Austria, the Epiphany singers are accompanied by the "Innviertler Schulspatzen", a semi-professional children’s choir. The singing takes place in the townhall square as dusk sets in. The singers of Oberndorf in Salzburg perform from January 1st to January 6th, carrying a revolving star as well as an illuminated Christmas crib.
In its present form, Epiphany singing in Austria and Bavaria has been known since the middle of the 16th century, based upon still older singing traditions at Christmas and New Year. The carol "We are the Three Kings from the East" is a typical example, going back to handbills of the 16th century. The close connection between Christmas and New Year becomes clear from the traditional processions. Another aspect of these customs, where the masked figures are usually presented with small gifts of money and/or refreshments, is a very practical one. In times gone by, these gifts helped seasonal workers - such as boatmen, ferrymen or harvesters – to survive the lean winter months.