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"Being conservative doesn't mean to keep the ashes, but to preserve the flame."
"Konservativ sein heißt nicht, die Asche zu behüten, sondern die Flamme zu bewahren."
Traditions... often unnoticed, until missed!
The Scherzinger Story. A few days after New Year the door bell rang. The wife had picked up the intercom and I asked her, why she had hung up without letting the visitors in. "It was just a joke, they called themselves the Scherzingers - practical jokesters", she told me. "Let them in", I replied, "that's the Sternsingers - the star singers." It's a local tradition that Christmas carolers dressed up as the three kings go from door to door on January 6, collecting for charity. Even with decline in religiosity, one can hardly deny how prominently Christian roots are represented in European culture. This would include visibility in architecture, in art, in literature and music as well as in tradition.
Local Customs. There is quite a number of customs, practices and beliefs, which are handed over from generation to generation. They may be kept and amended, they may evolve or simply vanish after a certain period of time. As the French quote by Jean Jaures says, being faithful to the tradition is to be faithful to the flame, not the ashes: "Être fidèle à la tradition, c'est être fidèle à la flamme et non à la cendre." It is good to keep certain traditions and don't throw everything overboard immediately as part of mixing cultures and globalization of customs and increasing influence of Anglo-Americanisms. On the other hand, where there is potential for improvement as a result of ridding ourselves form dusty habits, why not take the chance?
Halloween, a bad Joke?
Sweet or Sour. Lately, there is a new addition to our repertoire. "Trick or Treat" in German "Suesses oder Saures (sweets or sour surprises)" is "in" since the Gulf War had destroyed the 1991 Carnival business and costume sales were compensated another time of the year then. The All Hallows' Eve is the night before All Saints Day, when we are supposed to remember our dead. Halloween is the night of ghosts, jack-o-lantern's and witches, similar to the Walpurgis Night, a pagan rite re-imported as another Americanism. People disguise around that time of year, as if they have escaped from a haunted house at an amusement park - commercial horror dreams! And suddenly, we had Halloween parties, too… "Spooky, spooky, spooky, it’s really kind of kooky", as the singing English teachers Danny & Gerry would rhyme.
Donate or Torment. At times, when the custom of disguised kids wandering from door to door begging for candy with the threat "Trick or Treat" on their lips was completely unknown in this region, a post-war Donald Duck story of same title was published in German as "Spendieren oder Schikanieren - Donate or Torment." In the meantime spread all over the globe like a virus, the kids' battle yell on October 31 would be in Espanol "Dulces o Travesura - Sweets or Prank" and in Italiano "Dolcetto o Scherzzetto - Little Cake or Little Joke."
Halloween - misspelled it results in
"Hallo Wien" or "Hello Vienna".
Tricking Terrorists. Little kids tricking and treating collecting candy in the neighbourhood is fine, as long as it doesn't become an excuse for teenage vandalism. For in its essence, trick or treating is a way of encouraging kids to blackmail and threaten others in order to get their way. Which reminds me of the favourite fun question of a colleague: "What is the difference between young children and terrorists?" Answer: "With terrorists you can negotiate." Now just don't you miss to see our Halloween Wallpaper of the year! featuring our own hand-carved pumpkin.
Saint Nicholas (the Original)
Santa's Archetype. December 6 is one of the few days where kids over here get up in the morning at free will. The night before they have polished their boots and tried to be especially good, so that St. Nicholas would come and fill up their polished boots with oranges, nuts and lots of chocolate during the night. St. Nicholas Day remembers Santa Clause's historic archetype, a merciful and charitable 4th century bishop of the antique Myra, then capital of Lycia in the southwest of today's Turkey, where those fruits grow and Christianity plays a minor role in the meantime.
Nicholas and Pork. Sometimes controversy arises over little things that were out of question for a long time. With the increasing number of kids with migration background and different religion in Viennese kindergartens, it became a problem to order the national dish Schnitzel, usually deep fried pork meat. And local administration advises not to celebrate St Nicholas day any more, when kids used to learn the song "Lustig, lustig, trala-la-la, bald ist Nikolaus' Abend da - Jolly, jolly, trala-la-la, soon Nicolas' evening is there..." So no more nervous kids, when a white bearded visitor asks them, whether they were good, and brings them little gifts.
St Nicholas Day: Polishing the shoes the night before, cleaning them out the next morning.
Stripped of his bishop insignia, the Bishop's hat, the historic Saint Nicolas becomes Santa Clause.
Depending on whether the kids were naughty or nice, either the good Saint Nicholas or his devilish companion Krampus would pay them visits, not Santa Clause.
Santa Go Home!
"You don't exist!" "Ho-ho-ho? Austrians say no!" had been a remarkable 2002 headline of the Herald Tribune, speaking of globalization and commercialization of traditions, opposed by a confident minority that still believes in the "Christkind," the Christmas Child, representing Baby Jesus. It preserves the true meaning of Christmas rather than that Santa Clause, a secularized St. Nicholas stripped of his miter, the bishop's hat, and the crosier, his shepherd cane, possibly holding a Coke bottle instead. In 2005 a local radio station had put up billboards of a little angel (representing the "Christkind" who brings the gifts here) sticking its tongue out at a fat man in a red suit. The caption read: "You don't exist!"
The Christmas Angel, representing Baby Jesus, confronts Santa with the truth: "You don't even exist!"
Nordic Roots. The historical roots of Santa Claus date back far into the past. Stories about mythical creatures of the pre-Christian era mingled with legends of St. Nicholas. According to a friend's investigations, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Father Frost and Sinterklaas all originated in the "personified wish" as a positive facet of the Norse god father Odin, who was usually portrayed as old man. On Yule Eve, a Nordic midwinter festival, Children would fill their boots with food for Odin's flying horse, such as carrots, straw or sugar. In return, Odin would reward them by replacing it with candy and small gifts. The custom possibly transformed into the polished boots at Saint Nicolas Day and the stockings under the chimney at Christmas Morning. However, in Christian tradition the exchange of Christmas presents mimics the giving of gifts by the three wise men to the Christ child. In Denmark, the Holy Eve - December 24 - is still called Juleaftensdag (Yule Eve Day), and in Finland Santa himself is addressed as Joulupukki, meaning Yule-Goat, which probably originated in a custom to ward off spirits of darkness that wore goat skins and horns. Following the similar Alpine tradition of the masked, horned and sheep skinned Perchten, the Austrian Krampus, the German Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert) or the Dutch Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) represent St. Nicholas' devilish companion, who punishes the bad children, before St. Nicholas rewards the hand-full of good ones.
Hurray for Valentine's Day
Prisoner of Love. Legend has it that the Christian martyr Saint Valentine was sentenced to death for breaking the unattested law, which ordered young men to remain single with the intention to grow the Roman army. Before he was beheaded on February 14, 270 AD, from his death cell he managed to smuggle a little handwritten note to his loved one, signed "from your Valentine." Which centuries later would inspire a new branch of industry in the US for mass production of greeting cards. Instead of just celebrating the day people met each other, as a very personal sign of affection, or their wedding anniversary, if they don't forget about it, a new day to remember was easily added to the list of "Must buy flowers"-events. In Europe, after finding out "Valentinstag" is not necessarily on a "Dienstag," a Tuesday, I have always associated the day with the attempt of French flower shops to grow their business. A good idea is also to give heart shaped chocolate to someone special, your Valentine. But don't you dare forget it! When on one particular Valentine's Day, over here every employee received a flower, I was given a tulip in the hallway already for holding the door open. Later in my office, I was asked where my gift was and whether I had already disposed it. So I was quite embarrassed to admit that I had given it to the baker's lady, coming by every morning to sell fresh bread and rolls, who had been the only one not receiving a flower. In return, I was handed another tulip.
Three Kings and a Star
Door Way Writing C+M+B. Epiphany, meaning manifestation or appearance, is the complicated Latin expression for the January 6 holiday we refer to as "Dreikoenigstag" or "Three Kings Day." In disguise of those three wise men, following the star to find baby Jesus, young Carol Singers go from house to house and no ice and no snow and no wind hinders them (as their song says). Some doors are slammed into their faces and others happily opened to share a donation for a good cause. The inscription they leave above the doorway "C+M+B" is often read as the names of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, while actually standing for "Christus mansionem benedicat" or "Christ bless this home." Participating for the first time, our boy was Melchior and our girl joined to give Balthazar and carry the star! Year by year they would give their time and energy to support humanitarian projects in Africa and elsewhere, just as the old German Christmas carol goes: "Alle Jahre wieder - Every year again..."
Anchient Blessing. Later I heard of a thesis, which presumes that the "C+M+B" sign is much older, originating from a protection spell with the names of the Celtic-Germanic Goddesses Catharina + Margaretha + Barbara, the three Virgines Capitales. Or the Christian saints of the same names, the three holy maids, which are also regarded as helpers in need. For quite often Christianity has overlaid earlier traditions, making them its own.
Wishing a Happy New Year and collecting for a good cause... kids disguised as the biblical Three Wise Men.
After walking from door-to-door, the kids return with funny stories, such as more and more people not knowing the custom any more. And once they heard someone screaming from the inside: "Nobody's home!"
Terrible Tie Trimmers. February is a silly season, when it is worthwhile to familiarize international visitors with local customs, notably if they are in danger. This is especially true in Germany on "unsinniger Donnerstag - ridiculous Thursday", the Thursday before Carnival Tuesday, when you may run into people disguised in Mickey Mouse ears and other Carnival outfits. And you better be careful, if you wear a tie, as they will cut it off. Another term for the same day is "Altweiber-Fasching - Old Maids' Carnival". Unfortunately (or fortunately), we don't have that ridiculous Thursday in Austria - we are trying to be funny every day (more or less successfully). But we do have Carnival Tuesday. So better have your costume ready, if you visit in Feb!
In Poland, the same day is known as "tlusty czwartek - fat Thursday", when people are digging in one last time before lent and eat lots of "paczek", jelly doughnuts that also go by the German name "Faschingskrapfen - carnival donuts". They do not quite have the size of the giant Slovene "trojanski krofi - Trojan donuts", but they surely are as delicious and serve their purpose to make people overweight on that Thursday.
Go to the next page to see (the lucky) Three.