Top Things to Know About New Year’s in Vienna
With 2020 around the corner and with seemingly every street corner bustling with crowds around the good-luck charms stands that just popped up after Christmas, you might be left wondering if there are perhaps certain peculiarities you should be aware of when observing New Year’s (Silvester) in Vienna or other parts of Austria.
This year, we not only have compiled the TOP list of suggestions for how to spend New Year’s Eve if you are in Vienna, (Click to read!) but also decided to look at some customs, rituals and harbingers of good luck associated with the New Year, so that you will know how to handle the local traditions at the turn of the year.
Without further ado, here are the top things we would like you to know about New Year’s in Vienna and Austria.
If you feel that you have been seeing the word “Silvester” plastered basically everywhere since two days after Christmas, you just know the holiday season is very much in full swing and gearing up for the new year. Silvester is another term used in Austria to refer to 31 December or New Year’s Eve. It takes its name from Pope Silvester I, who passed away on 31 December 335 and was later canonized as a saint, hence his feast day being observed on 31 December. The association with the new year dates back to 1582, when the Church shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, effectively moving the end of the year from 24 December to 31 December, the day when St. Silvester was traditionally honored. However, it was only a century later, in 1691, that December 31st started being referred to as Silvester, following the decree by Pope Innocent XII, which elevated the 1st January to a church holiday and named it for the saint. As such, Silvester is generally thought to refer to both dates, which gives us a perfect excuse to enjoy the celebrations and revels for two days.
Noisy Midnight Toast
While the new year hasn’t always been celebrated on 1st of January in the German-speaking part of Europe, it has been observed since ancient times to be a noisy affair. The pagan end of the year would usually fall on the date of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, with the increased hours of nighttime rumored to usher in all sort of ill-meaning entities that thrived in darkness. As such, the tradition to make noises, usually by knocking sticks against wood, and to light blazing fires to ward off evil spirits has been translated to the modern world in the elaborate firework displays and toasting.
In Austria, there is still a religious element to this ancient practice. When the clock strikes midnight on 1 January, all falls silent, radio stations interrupt their usual transmissions, in order to broadcast the loud ringing of the Pummerin, which is the large bell in the tower of St. Stephan’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) in Vienna. After which, the fireworks shows start in a colorful and noisy symphony of light, setting the cold night sky ablaze. Naturally, we also toast with bubbly in Vienna, just be sure to look people in the eyes when clinking the glasses together, it is considered respectful to do so (in Austria and Germany, at least).
No New Year Without Strauss
Something as ubiquitous as the fireworks at midnight is that right after the ringing of the Pummerin, one can glide into the new year to the famous waltz by Johann Strauss, “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”, which will be broadcast over radio. You can expect to hear this played on the Graben, where revelers can join in the midnight waltzing of the New Year.
An additional musical start to the new year and a worldwide renowned tradition is the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic starting usually before noon on 1 January, which is broadcast live in 90 countries around the globe. The program will mainly feature Austrian compositions, primarily from the composers in the Strauss family, and is famously poised to end every year on the jolly and jubilant notes of the “Radetzky March”, also by Johann Strauss.
Dinner for One
If you look forward to a quiet start of the new year in front of the TV, you can partake in a more recent Austrian new year’s tradition, namely watching the annual broadcast of the 1963 sketch “Dinner for One”. It is an 18-minute black-and-white comedic sketch, written by Lauri Wylie for the theatre and featuring May Warden and Freddie Frinton, playing Miss Sophie and James, the characters at Miss Sophie’s 90th birthday party. She hosts the dinner every year with four friends, but having outlived them all and still keeping up with her tradition, it is up to her manservant, James, to impersonate them all for her entertainment, getting drunk in the process to a hilarious, cheeky ending. The sketch became a beloved classic in Austria since it had been broadcast by the ORF in 1972, usually half an hour before midnight, ‘the same procedure as every year’.
In a similar fashion, the New Year’s episode of “Ein echter Wiener geht nicht unter” (A Real Viennese Never Gives Up) is also broadcast, however this would be more likely to strike a chord with locals, as it uses Viennese dialect.
Culinary excesses are likely to pick up where you left off at Christmas and, in line with similar practices around the globe, there are certain dishes which one is encouraged to feast upon on New Year’s Eve, to ensure good health and prosperity in the year to come.
In Austria, poultry is something you are not likely to be served for New Year’s Eve dinner, as it is said your luck will fly away from you in the year to come. Fish is usually eaten for good luck and positive changes, while pork is consumed generally to attract abundance. For a side dish or a vegetarian option, have a lentil dish, as money is said to be attracted to your pockets directly proportional to the quantity of lentils you have; the more, the better for your finances, it would seem. To top it off, you can end the meal with a sweet treat, which will either be the carp-shaped biscuits (start eating from the tail) or the Glücksschweinchen, a Styrian pastry with filling, in the shape of piglets.
Rauhnächte (Twelfth Night)
The period from the winter solstice on 20 December to the Epiphany on 6 January is referred to as the Rauhnächte, roughly the equivalent of the twelve days of Christmas of the English-speaking world, when it starts on Christmas Day. Together with the Christmas and the Epiphany Eve, the New Year’s Eve is one of the nights, when one is supposed to cleanse the household with smoke, to receive blessing and protection, and to ward off evil spirits. In a pot, usually held by the head of the household, one would smoke over coal embers branches of coniferous plants (ones consecrated at Easter) or frankincense, moving in from the house annexes towards the sleeping rooms, and sprinkling with holy water. The embers and remains in the pot would then be cast over the garden or fields. There are numerous variations to this ritual throughout Austria, some have even been merged with the Perchtenlauf (chasing of the ghouls), where hellishly clad people run around in the streets, or with the Bleigiessen (molybdomancy), a form of divination using molten led cast in cold water, which is presently illegal, due to led toxicity. Not a tradition likely to be performed in your average Viennese household, fumigation is still practiced in rural areas in the Austrian Alps and would definitely be an interesting ritual to observe. Lighting incense to ward off negativity and disease seems to be a New-Agey twist to this Alpine tradition. For divination aficionados, casting molten wax in cold water is a substitute to led, said to also foretell about the coming year.
Lucky charms are a welcome, usually inexpensive gift you can offer to your family and friends for New Year’s, to wish them good health and good fortune in the year to come. The Viennese stands will carry almost all European symbols associated with good luck, but the item standing out the most and associated exclusively with the new year is the Glücksschweinchen, the lucky piglet. Among ancient Romans, owning pigs was considered a marker of affluence and wealth, while in Norse mythology, the boar was a symbol of fertility, as well as a sacred animal of the gods. These meanings pervaded into modern times and the pig is still associated with wealth and prosperity.
Other lucky charms include the four-leaf clover, the chimney sweeps, the ladybug, the toadstool and lucky pennies (Pfennig). The four-leaf clover would bring the wearer good luck. If the horseshoe is hung above a door with the open end pointing upwards, it is said to contain good fortune in the household. A ladybug has always been a good omen among farmers, as it would consume pests; nowadays, it would be a sign of good changes and abundance coming into one’s life. The lucky pennies, whether old or new and shiny were not a symbol of wealth, as one would be inclined to think, but rather used to protect against spells, trickery and lies.
As you can see there is a lucky charm for every need and a fun way to wish your dear ones a prosperous, healthy and lucky year ahead.
We trust you enjoyed our list of top things to know about New Year’s in Vienna and Austria and learned something interesting in the process. As this is our last article of the year, let us take this opportunity to wish you Prosit Neujahr or Guten Rutsch!
Happy new year and all the very best in 2020!