Top photo: During "Fasnacht" people dress up in elaborate costumes ©Österreich Werbung/H.Wiesenhofer
Traditions in Tyrol
The mountainous state of Tyrol has a large variety of its very own traditions, deeply rooted in many aspects of Tyrolean life. Most of them originate from religious rites that played an essential role in the Tyrol’s history and helped form the state’s identity. Although the religious connotation has largely faded, these traditions today are still part of the Tyrolean spirit and are reflected in the state’s close connection to nature, annual festivities, and community life.
When the current Federal Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, a Tyrolean, swore by the “Heart of Jesus” during his pledge ceremony, he referred to one of the most popular traditions in the Tyrol. The veneration of the “Heart of Jesus,” which has shaped the Tyrol culturally, politically, socially, and religiously, began during wartime in the 18th century. The Tyrolean people prayed for heaven’s aid and resigned their lives to the “Heart of Jesus.” As a sign of the oath, Sacred Heart fires were lit on mountain tops and slopes. When the troops of Andreas Hofer surprisingly won the battle against the French and Bavarian invasion, the Sunday of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became one of the most important festivities. Until today, faithful Tyroleans renew their vow on this annual feast day and mountain ranges throughout Tyrol are illuminated with countless bonfires as a reminder of the oath to the Sacred Heart.
Besides the “Heart of Jesus” tradition, there are various other dimensions of faith anchored deeply in the religious legacy of the Tyrol. Passion plays have a very long tradition in the Tyrol, and one of the most famous performances takes place in Erl. Since the 17th century, a local group of actors has been performing the Passion of Christ every six years.Thousands of visitors from all over the world travel to the small town with a population of about 1,400 people to watch the performance in the specially built “Passionsspielhaus” by architect Robert Schuller from Innsbruck. This venue is perfect proof of how traditional rites and state-of-the-art stagecraft can fuse successfully. Other manifestations of faith comprise staging nativity scenes, carol singing, epiphany singers and rorate masses during Advent.
Not only the festivities, but also the locations, the churches and chapels are worth visiting: the western part of the state is well known for the huge amount of pilgrimage churches, each of them with its own special history. The legend of the church of Maria Waldrast, for example, says, that two young shepherds found Holy Mary’s portrait grown out of a tree. For this reason, a church was built to celebrate this miracle, and up until today people go on a pilgrimage to Maria Waldrast to witness it with their own eyes.
Besides religious traditions, Tyrolean people practice their special customs throughout the year to strengthen the community, to form and preserve their identity and to protect the collective memory. In villages as well as in larger cities people mostly organize themselves in various associations and unions. There are musical societies such as the “Tiroler Blasmusikverband”, which counts more than 303 traditional marching brass-bands with more than 15,650 musicians participating. One of the biggest and most traditional associations in the western part is called “Bund der Tiroler Schützenkompanien.” Founded in the Middle Ages, Tyrol’s defense was assigned to the association.
Nowadays, the “Schützen” (the riflemen) are not in charge of any military business any longer, but the participating 11,687 men and women devote themselves to preserving Tyrolean traditions and to competing athletically. They also perform the traditional reception for national and international guests, which was first held when Austria was still an empire. The reception ceremony follows strict rules, including the performance of the national anthem, a gun salute, and downing the socalled “Begrüßungsschnapserl,” a shot of Austrian schnapps to welcome the guests properly. Although the performances have to follow this protocol, there are, however, certain differences depending on the area where the “Schützen” come from. They differ in their dialect and their traditional clothing, but overall the “Tiroler Schützenkompanie” unites them as Tyrolean people.
The Tyroleans love their celebrations, thus every season comes with its very own. At the time of carnival, when spring and winter are rivaling for dominance, the colorful custom of “Fasnacht” takes place. Its festivities are all about making everything that’s fun and usually prohibited, a reality, and its myth-enshrouded history ranges from sun worship, fertility rites, and the expulsion of all evil to the conjuration of vital spirits. People dress up in elaborate costumes such as witches, bears and other mystical figures, wearing masks carved out of wood. Months-long preparations finally reach the climax during the larksome celebrations. Due to the wild nature of these festivities, which inlcude singing, dancing and making loud noises, they are usually only staged every three, four or in some places even five years.
The eagerly awaited spring awakening is then celebrated around Easter, in the form of the so-called “Grasausläuten.” Mostly young boys wander through the streets carrying loud bells to metaphorically lure out the grass from the ground. In summer, when the previously mentioned “Heart of Jesus” fires are lit, about 180,000 sheep, cattle, and goats spend their time high up in Tyrol’s Alps to help prevent the fields from overgrowing.
Once summer comes to an end, the cattle’s return to the valleys is widely celebrated as “Almabtriebe.” Wearing colorful flowers and bells, the animals are accompanied by traditional music and hikers, who are awaited with specially baked goods back in the valley. On the very same day, the “Schofschoad” (shearing of sheep) which is certainly a crowd puller, takes place in many towns. Inspired by traditional church consecration festivals and St. Martin’s Day, the “Erntedankfest” (harvest festival) is a rather young tradition in the Tyrol. It is usually organized by young local farmers in public places as a symbol for gratitude towards the year’s harvest.
The celebrations include music, dance, and of course, culinary specialties and last until late at night. During Advent, along with the Advent Sundays, Thursdays are important days for pre-Christmas rites, too. In the “Klöpfelnächte” (knocking nights), groups of people dressed in theatrical costumes walk from house to house to announce the upcoming arrival of the Savior. The “Anklöpfler” sing old carols and are usually invited into the houses for snacks and warm beverages.
Style State There
is a strong pride towards the cultural legacy and so Tyroleans try their best to preserve it. Clothing plays an important visual role in that process. In Austria, villages and regional areas have their own type of traditional clothing, the “Trachten.” The “Dirndl” and the “Lederhosen” illustrate Tyrol’s history through fashion and stand for the cultural heritage as well as the highly valued skills of making it by hand.
The wide range of national clothing, which was influenced by the costumes of farmers, peasants, and rural people, includes traditional styles as well as new fashion trends. All of them are characterized by the use of high-quality materials such as linen or loden (a traditional type of felt). Nowadays, the “Tracht” is mainly worn on special occasions such as weddings, and enjoyed by the younger as well as the older generation. Many associations like the marching brass-bands have created their very own uniforms as a sign of national pride and solidarity within the community.
Tyrol over Time
So, what’s most typical for the Tyrol? Over the last decades, social values and traditions have changed, as has the church’s influence on people’s everyday lives and rites. Due to economic and sociopolitical innovations and reforms, life in the Tyrol is changing constantly and some traditional customs might be outshined along the way by the traits of a modern and more globalized lifestyle. Still, the Tyrol seems to manage this transmission of old and deeply rooted traditions into modern life with ease. Especially in times of fast pace and stress, this calmness and serenity could probably be the most constant of the Tyrol’s characteristics throughout all time – along with the warm and welcoming attitude that locals as well as visitors from all over the world appreciate so much.