Arguably the second biggest holiday after Christmas, Easter is a special time in Austria, with numerous long-standing traditions still cherished and honored today – some of them even predating Christianity. Here are some suggestions that you can incorporate into your celebrations this year!
On Maundy Thursday – known as Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday) in German – kids take to the streets with wooden ratchets, making noise to substitute the sound of church bells, which traditionally stay silent from this day until Easter Sunday: it is considered inappropriate to ring them while the Christ is living through the passion. These Ratschenbuam (“ratchet boys,” although girls also join the fun these days) also carry apples, pretzels and palm leaves to the church, but hiding Easter eggs is taboo on this day – after all, the son of man is suffering for our sins.
In a tradition similar to Scandinavian midsummer celebrations, this ancient practice sees a bonfire lit on the night before Easter Sunday, with the community congregating around it to sing and dance – braver individuals even jump over the flames. Originally a pagan spring ritual, over time the Osterfeuer (Easter fire) has taken on a distinctly Christian symbolism: the flames are the anticipation of the resurrection, and the parish priest usually lights a single candle from the bonfire, carrying it into the dark church to symbolize the spirit of Christ returning to light the world again. While still popular, there have been some safety concerns in recent years: In Graz and Carinthia, open fires of any sort are banned – including the Osterfeuer. They’re still allowed in rural Styria but still need to be pre-registered with the local fire department.
What’s a celebration without food? Most prominent in Carinthia, Styria and Tyrol, the traditional Osterjause (Easter snack) generally includes the seasonal Osterschinken (Easter ham), which is blessed in church and often enjoyed as a sandwich with horseradish and (Easter) eggs (gotta get rid of them somehow!). A great way to end Lent, don’t forget that Osterschinken usually has to be pre-ordered from your local butcher! Another favorite is the Osterlamm – a traditional cake in the shape of a lamb, both homemade and store-bought versions continue to delight to this day.
Ostereier & Eierpecken
An ancient fertility symbol repurposed by Christianity to signify rebirth, Easter eggs (particularly the chocolate kind) are popular worldwide, but Austrians still frequently give the real thing – decorating and personalizing hard boiled eggs replaces the sugar rush, along with the joy of achievement children get after hunting and finding their colorful treasures. One particular local practice is called “Eierpecken:” a type of “egg fencing,” two parties face off with their eggs, smashing them together. The first egg to crack loses; the winner gets to keep the broken egg as a tasty prize, usually adding it to their Osterschinken sandwich.
Often found at your local florist or Easter market, the Osterbaum (Easter tree) shows that Austrians invest as much effort in beautiful Easter ornaments as they do in Christmas decorations: Intricate ornaments made of hollowed-out Easter eggs are hung on willow branches, symbolizing both spring and resurrection.