It’s been a long time since I last had a chance to visit Austria in winter, but in early January of this year I managed to spend a few days in the Salzkammergut on my way home from Italy.
Of course, I also visited Hallstatt with members of my family. We spent a leisurely afternoon looking around, enjoying the fresh air, and taking a few pictures. It had snowed a few days earlier, and the town was in its winter finest.
The entire visit provided several memorable impressions and events.
First – it was one of the longest periods without rain or snow I have ever spent in Austria;
Second – there are actually places in Hallstatt where the sun hits at the beginning of January.
Third and best of all – it was the 5th of January, the day before Epihany, and we saw Sternsingers (star singers) in Hallstatt, and Glöckler parades in Bad Ischl.
Sternsingers are a Christmas tradition in Austria, and Epiphany on the 6th of January is the last major holiday of the season, at least in practice.
But the most interesting events take place the day before the holiday, and there is no better place to experience such holiday traditions than the Salzkammergut.
In Hallstatt we saw a group of four children go from door to door to sing Christmas carols. They were dressed up as the Three Wise Men who are said to have followed a star to Bethlehem. And true to legend, three of the Sternsingers followed a star carried by the fourth member of the group. When we stopped to admire them, they sang a carol for us, right there on the spot. We rewarded them with a little money for a good cause, as is the custom.
Many years ago when I went from house to house as a Sternsinger, people handed out a few coins, cookies or donuts as a token of appreciation for a Christmas carol. I got to keep everything I collected or shared it with friends and family, as I chose. But now, I understand, children don’t keep the money. Instead they collect for a worthy cause. Nevertheless, these four singers appreciated our small donation, and we loved the song they sang.
That evening we spent in Bad Ischl, and there we witnessed a New Year’s rite with roots in a world view at least as old as Samhain, a Celtic festival. Since time immemorial, its been a custom around solstice to drive out evil spirits and demons from the dark corners of house and field. To this end, people nearly everywhere have developed all sorts of practices and rites. And at least in Austria, the fifth of January has become a day when these so called pagan rituals are practiced in conjunction with Epiphany, a church festival.
In the Salzkammergut, the task of driving out the demons falls to Glöckler groups. Glöckler are dressed in white, carry large illuminated caps on their head and wear huge cow bells around their waist. They go from house to house and farm to farm, perform ritualistic figures, and with their bells they generate an enormous noise at every step. The noise is thought to be sufficient to drive out evil spirits and wake up benefical beings sleeping below the snow.
In the larger towns of the Salzkammergut, like Bad Ischl and Ebensee, a number of different groups parade through town after dark before they disperse into outlying communities.
That evening, as I stood in the streets of Bad Ischl, twenty or more groups of Glöckler paraded through the streets and generated almost deafening noise with huge cowbells slung around their waist. Each group was a accompanied by a leader, who directs their movements, and by one or more companions with sacks soliciting donations.
The thanks for our contributions were some of the most genuine and heart-felt and genuine “Happy New Year” wishes I have received in a long time.
Thousands of people lined the street, to watch the spectacle. Bad Ischl had turned out all street lights to better show of the illuminated caps. Several vendors had set up booths along the parade route. There we bought hot cider and hot mulled wine to fortify our spirits. The drinks also warmed us while we watched the Gloeckler groups parade through town, conversed with friends, family and acquaintances, and enjoyed the evening.
It was a cold evening, but we stayed until the very end to see it all. The atmosphere was indescribably festive and social. It also drove home the point that there is only one place on earth where you can have that experience: the Salzkammergut.