Austrian Easters: Some of their Symbols
If you look back through the centuries at some of the symbols and customs associated with Easter, curious origins emerge. In the early days of Christianity, the church incorporated many pagan rites of spring into its Easter celebrations as it struggled to gain acceptance as the primary religion in Europe. Pagan rituals using bells, drums, bonfires, processions, and dancing, all once employed to drive away winter and celebrate spring, were adapted by early Christians to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection instead.
Fasching or carnival, for example, was a time for feasting and merrymaking in Catholic countries such as Austria. In Vienna, up to fifty balls an evening were once a part of Fasching celebrations early in the last century, attracting nearly 300,000 participants. Whereas today the number of balls and celebrants is much reduced, Fasching remains a special time in Vienna.
Faschingdienstag (elsewhere known as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday) closes the feasting and merrymaking season. Faschingdienstag is specially represented in Vienna at the Kunsthistorisches Museum with its treasured painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder titled “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”. It depicts a jousting tournament between Prince Carnival and Dame Lent. Such engagements were once part of many carnival processions in Europe dating back to the Middle Ages.
Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) marks the beginning of Lent which lasts forty days and nights. Following confession, ashes from the previous year’s burnt Palm Sunday willow branches used to be placed in the hair and on one’s clothes. This signifies the beginning of penance, which is observed through prolonged fasting. In the Middle Ages, meat, wine, eggs and dairy products were forbidden during Lent, as were weddings. Today, such strict observation of fasting is no longer practiced, but Aschermittwoch is marked by special herring menus in many Viennese restaurants (since fish was allowed during Lent).
Pilgrimages of the faithful to pray before the Stations of the Cross are yet another custom that arose during Lent as a means of observing the sufferings of Christ on his way to Calvary. Most often, these stations can be seen in paintings or reliefs along the walls inside churches. However, in many old parishes, such stations are depicted in stone or wood and lie outside the church, sometimes up steep hillsides.
Kalvarienberg ChurchIn Vienna, the Kalvarienberg Church in the 17th District (tram 43) has the most distinctive depiction of the Stations of the Cross. The church was destroyed by the Turks in both 1529 and 1683. Inside, a painting known as the “Turkish Madonna” bears the scars inflicted by Turkish archers. The church, rebuilt in 1766 and heavily damaged again in 1945, stands in what was once the village of Hernals. In the 18th century, remarkable Baroque wooden reliefs were constructed outside the walls of the church on an artifical hill, now enclosed.
Seven stations depict the sufferings of Christ and include symbols for seven sins, and seven depict the life of Mary and seven virtues. The central station shows the death of Christ on the Cross. (Open from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday from 9 to 6.) There has been an Easter market for 350 years around the Kalvarienberg Church. This year there is also one in the Freyung in the First District and numerous others throughout Vienna.
On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, a Fastentuch (Lenten cloth) is hung to veil crucifixes and altars. Although not often on exhibit, the Oesterreichisches Museum fuer Volkskunde on Laudongasse has a large Fastentuch from 1640 with 36 scenes beginning with the lives of Adam and Eve and continuing on with the lives of Christ and Mary. This year, Lenten cloths may be seen in St. Michael, Jesuiten-/Universitaetskirche, St. Johann Nepomuk, Rennweg, and St. Rochus churches.
willow branches Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday) is celebrated in many areas of the world by the blessing of palm leaves. In Austria, however, where palms are not native, Palmkaetzchen (Germanfor palmkittens or English for pussy willow-branches) are blessed. An Austrian folk custom says that if you bury these blessed Palmkaetzchen, they protect your fields from bad weather during the year.
Observances of Maundy Thursday, called Gruendonnerstag in Austria, date back to the Fourth Century. Ceremonial foot washings in remembrance of Christ washing the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper were widespread in Europe for many centuries. Popes, Catholic sovereigns, prelates, priests, and nobles performed this rite. In Austria, Emperor Franz Josef I was the last emperor to perform the ceremony. (For a detailed eyewitness account of the ceremony as performed by the wife of Franz I in 1820, see the bottom of this piece.)
On Gruendonnerstag, the church bells stop ringing for three days. In Austria, the bells are said to fly to Rome and not return until Christ is resurrected. Wooden rattles and clappers, symbolizing the uproar created in nature by the Crucifixion, replaced the bells in earlier times. In some parts of Austria, the custom has been revived and children, known as the Ratschenbuben, collect money for charities.
Austrians often eat fresh green vegetables like spinach or salad on Gruendonnerstag. Another Austrian folk custom is the practice of collecting seven different herbs with healing properties on that day. Yet another Austrian folk custom says that a haircut on Good Friday will keep headaches away for a year. And women partaking of a mixture of flour and bread crumbs on Good Friday needn’t be concerned about becoming pregnant for at least a year.
Karfreitag (Good Friday) is a day of mourning and a holiday for Protestants, but a work day for Catholics in Austria. Many churches observe Karfreitag with special mourning masses and displays of the Holy Grave. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum contains a rich collection of paintings depicting the Crucifixion, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Christ Carrying the Cross.
On Holy Saturday night (Karsamstag), Easter bonfires can still be seen in parts of Austria and Germany. In bygone days, fire wheels were rolled down mountainsides and Easter candles containing five grains of wheat, symbolizing Christ’s five wounds, were lit.
Some legends say that on Easter mornings, early risers could see the sun dance and jump three times in celebration of the Resurrection. In Austria, morning dew on this special morning was said not only to provide beauty and strength but also to cure fevers and eye and throat diseases.
The egg, a symbol of life dating back to pagan rites of spring as well to the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Persians, and Egyptians, symbolizes both life and the Resurrection in Christian folk observances. While eggs laid on Easter were thought to have the strongest protective powers, people collected and saved eggs laid on other holy days as well.
Our Forgotten Past, edited by Jerome Blum, provides a long list of European folk beliefs regarding the special properties of eggs laid on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. These eggs protected believers from lightning, fire, rats, mice, caterpillars, and witches. Such eggs were said to keep believers from falling off ladders, help children to read, and cure colic, fever, and hernias. It was also thought that if you hung these egg shells up in your orchards, they helped fruit to ripen and be particularly juicy. If you mixed the shells with your seed corn, you were guaranteed a good crop.
Although many Austrian Easter folk customs and traditions faded away in the last century, many others survive. Taking the time to seek out the past in the present can be richly rewarding. The Tourist Chaplaincy provides a free “Lent + Easter, Events + Information” brochure in English and German. It is available at the City of Vienna Tourist Information Offices.
An aside: The popular American Easter lily is not a traditional symbol for Easter in Europe. In European religious art, the lily is a symbol of purity associated with the Virgin Mary and virgin saints such as Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, Joseph, and Francis of Assisi.
In the U.S., the lily as a symbol of Easter did not arise until the mid-19th century. In fact, with only a few exceptions, Easter was hardly celebrated in most states in Puritan America until the Civil War. Protestants saw traditional Catholic celebrations of Easter as “Popish and superstitious” in origin and abandoned them following the Reformation. In some Protestant churches during the Civil War, special sermons and prayers were chosen on Easter Sunday to console the bereaved by focusing on the theme of victory of life over death. Over time, the lily came to be the most prominent flower displayed in churches during Easter services and eventually became an Easter symbol–in America.
* The ceremony of Washing the Feet on Maundy Thursday was performed in the Habsburg Court. The practice ended with Franz Joseph I. A letter describing the ceremony as performed by Emperor Franz I and his wife was written by an eye-witness in 1820. The letter is included in the collection More Letters from Martha Wilmot, Impressions of Vienna 1819-1829. Macmillan and Co., Ltd. 1935. Letter dated 4 May 1820 on pages 61-62. Martha Wilmot Bradford was the wife of the Rev. William Bradford, Chaplain to the British Embassy during the reign of Franz I.
“… I certainly have never yet mentioned a most curious ceremony which we saw just before Easter, which was the Emperor and Empress washing the feet of 12 old men and 12 old women, in imitation of our Saviour’s act to his disciples. About half past eight o’Clock in the Morn’g of Holy Thursday Mr. Bradford and I went to the Palace and as belonging to the Embassy got into a place railed off for illustrious Strangers, in consequence of which we saw everything. It was near an hour before the Imperial family arrived and in the meantime the Apartment became crowded to excess.
Lady Stewart made a great effort, and to my surprise arrived also. Two long tables had been previously spread, one on the right and one on the left side of the Saloon, at which the 12 guests were already seated, dressed out for the occasion. The Emperor and Empress came in together, and separated each to their respective table followed by their State attendants. I attended to the Empress so I will describe her side, and you may fancy the Emperor doing exactly the same. The Ladies in Waiting took from the hands of the servants large dishes of meat, which they presented in succession to the Empress, and she with her own hands placed them on the table before the old Women who eat most earnestly, and drank the same.
This lasted a considerable time during which the Empress stood, helping some with her own hands, removing dishes, replacing them by others, and in good earnest doing the service of the table. When their dinner and dessert were ended, the tables were removed, the grande Maitress tied a cambrick Apron round the Empresses waist, the Grand Maitre presented a Golden Ewer and Basin of water and a towel, she took the towel, kneeled down, and bona fide washed and wiped the feet of each old Woman (no doubt they had been well scrubbed beforehand), after which the Grande Maitresse took off the Apron, and presented 12 little bags of money with long strings, one of which she placed with unaffected good nature and good humour round each of their necks, allowing each to kiss her hand, patting the forehead of the oldest and most infirm, and seeming personally acquainted with all. She then listened to the short prayer which a Priest pronounced and all retired.
The Imperial family is remarkable for an unaffected good nature, which it is impossible not to love as well as admire; it seems to distinguish them all but I don’t well know whether to consider this ceremony as humiliating or its reverse, for tis so true that extremes meet. But certain it is that tis a most popular one, and everybody retires full of the praises of Imperial condescension tho’ nothing less great than Imperial rank, or the Pope, or the first dignitaries in the Greek Church can perform it.”
Article Author: Billie Ann Lopez
Billie Ann Lopez was an American freelance writer, born and raised in Kansas. For many years she called Vienna, the city she loved, home. Billie Ann’s articles tell you about the legends, places in Austria not often on the tourist maps and subjects close to her heart. Informative, descriptive and interesting she acquainted you with her Austria.
Billie Ann Lopez passed away September 13th, 2003. She enriched our lives through her friendship, caring and writings. Billie Ann, you are greatly missed. Silvia McDonald