In many countries Christmas comes with a variety of traditions. In Austria some of our traditions go back as far as pagan customs. Some pagan rituals mixed with Christian beliefs, leaving us with fascinating traditions and beliefs, including Christmas Demons, talking cows and why you should do your laundry before New Years’ Eve.
Like many European countries Austria was Christianized but it still retained some of the pagan beliefs and superstitions, some of which mixed with Christian lore. Many of them center around the Raunächte, twelve magical nights in the time from St. Thomas Night (December, 21st), which is the longest night of the year, up until the night before Epiphany (January, 6th). Most traditions are based around keeping away evil spirits, fortune telling and trying to attract luck for the coming year. Here are a few of our favourite traditions and superstitions. A short disclaimer before we start: These beliefs may vary by region or even valley and some of them can be found in bordering German-speaking areas like Bavaria, too.
December 4th: Flower Power
This is the most “Christian” item on the list since it refers to Saint Barbara but some believe the tradition existed before and was just incorporated into Barbara’s Name Day. On December 4th, people cut twigs from cherry trees and put them in a vase with water. If by Christmas the twig began to bloom, you can make a wish for each blossom.
December 5th: Santa’s Evil Friend
As in many parts of the world, the long winter nights are associated with evil spirits. In particular, there’s Krampus, the companion of St. Nikolaus – or Santa Clause as you may know him as in other countries. As the polar opposite of St. Nicolas this furry devilish, hooved creature punishes badly behaved children by bringing them coal or a switch to beat them with. During advent, you’ll find Krampus parades. Somewhat related are also Perchten and Glöckler Parades which often symbolize fighting off the evil winter, especially with the sound of bells.
December 21th: Christmas Demons’ Run
On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, it was believed that the barrier between our world and that of spirits is especially thin, allowing them to break through into our world on the nights which are Raunächte. These Christmas Demons run in a group called The Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd), bringing bad luck to anyone who sees them or even whose land they pass through.
One way to protect yourself from them and evil spirits in general, is to burn special incense in a small bowl and walk with it through the house and barn.
December 24th: Animals don’t just talk in Disney films
Superstition has it that on Christmas Eve, when Christmas is mainly celebrated in Austria, the animals in the barn are able to speak. Not only are they capable of human language but they also predict the future. However, anyone who hears them will die.
December 31st: Stop Demons with Laundry
New Year’s is another of the most important Raunächte, those magical nights where Christmas Demons run wild. Each year, my Grandmother and Mum hurry to finish the laundry and fold it up, before nightfall. It is an ancient superstition that if you still have clothes on the clothesline, demons may get caught in it during their wild hunt, leaving bad luck and an untimely death behind. The exact details of which states of laundry may be harmful diverge between regions. If you want to be on the safe side, just start into the new year with all the laundry to-dos ticked off. You can read more about fun New Year’s Eve traditions in Austria.
If you want more about evil and good Christmas demons, check out Julia’s new short stories, full of magical Austrian Christmas vibes.