Molten lead, marzipan pigs, Freddie Frinton, the Pummerin, and Strauss. Not the answer to an obscure Trivial Pursuit question, but just some of the traditions celebrated at a typical New Year in Vienna.
Let us begin…
- See also: the Silvesterpfad (official New Year trail)
Like just about everywhere in the world, friends and families gather together on New Year’s Eve in Vienna (or Silvester, as it’s known in German) to celebrate and think of all the resolutions they can break within a week.
Pigs and more
These New Year’s Eve gatherings commonly involve the exchange of small symbolic gifts, like chocolate coins and (particularly) lucky charms.
Common motifs for these charms are:
- Schwein gehabt – to “Have had pig” – is a German expression for having had a stroke of luck. Which is why you find pigs everywhere at New Year
- Fungi, particularly the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria
- Chimney sweeps
- Clover (often gifted as a real plant in a small decorative pot)
In the days leading up to New Year, Vienna fills with stands selling these charms, mostly as cheap, mass-produced plastic items or edible versions made of marzipan.
The same motifs appear at the New Year markets, albeit in slightly more artistic guises.
Other common “lucky” gifts include fish-shaped sponge finger biscuits and Brieflos instant lottery tickets. You open the latter right away to reveal a cash prize (or likely not).
Bleigießen (lead casting)
A common pastime at Silvester parties is to play with molten metal.
Why do we do this? An excellent question and I’m glad you asked it. First, a bit of explanation…
Traditionally, you hold a lump of lead over a candle on a specially-designed spoon and wait until the metal melts. Then you pour the molten mass quickly into a bowl of water, where the lead then hardens.
Which doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. But…the shape the lead takes in the water allegedly predicts your future, which is the whole point of the exercise. So, for example, a crown shape suggests financial success.
(Don’t do this at home)
There’s even a word for this form of divination: molybdomancy.
As you might suspect, the shapes formed in the water are rarely clear. You have to use your imagination. Helpfully, this also means you can conveniently see shapes that foresee a rosy future.
These days, the Bleigießen sets you buy for New Year don’t actually contain lead at all. After all, it’s poisonous; lead-based sets are illegal. People use tin or wax instead. So don’t try this at home without using a certified set, and be sure to follow the instructions and warnings.
Dinner for one
Many countries have a TV programme intimately associated with a holiday. Love Actually and Christmas in the UK springs to mind. In Austria, it’s Dinner for One at New Year. And that’s not a translation.
Every New Year’s Eve, the national broadcaster (ORF) plays the 1963 black and white *English-language* sketch, usually in the hour before midnight.
Freddie Frinton is butler James to May Warden’s Miss Sophie, who is celebrating her 90th birthday with a dinner. Since the traditional birthday guests have long since departed this world, James impersonates each so as not to disappoint his short-sighted employer. This involves consuming considerable amounts of alcohol, with the inevitable consequences.
All this happens in *English*, though the sketch has a German introduction. A phrase from the show (“Same procedure as every year”) has even entered the German vernacular.
Austria’s not alone in this tradition, but one country where the sketch rarely appears on TV is…the UK. I grew up in England and had never heard of it until I moved to Vienna.
So, after a few drinks and fun, midnight approaches, and all eyes (and ears) turn to…
The curiously-named Pummerin conducts the countdown to the New Year in Austria. That’s not some strange position held by a wizened old timekeeper, but the huge 20-tonne bell located in the north tower of St Stephen’s cathedral in the very centre of Vienna.
During the year, you can actually climb the tower and get up close to the bell.
(The domed tower on the left of the photo houses the Pummerin bell)
Towards midnight, the crowds gather in the square outside the cathedral to hear the Pummerin, and TV and radio stations broadcast the sound across the country. Then the sky explodes…
At midnight, the fireworks and crackers that have peppered the whole evening go off in earnest. Everywhere.
Vienna becomes one giant firework display as people launch rockets with varying degrees of legality (private firework displays are largely forbidden). It’s raucous and colourful and continues for a good half an hour or more. The smoke and smell hang over the city for hours after.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, though. We like to sit on our balcony and watch the display across to the hills in the west. On a clear night, it’s quite fabulous.
At the same time, it’s all very loud. Many people begin well before midnight and not everyone is considerate about where they let off their bangers and rockets.
Once the echoes of the Pummerin die away, TV and radio stations switch to Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz. Those not fiddling with a firework fuse then grab a partner and dance in the New Year.
After the waltz, all that remains to do is drink a glass of champagne or sparkling wine, nibble at your marzipan pig, and try not to think about all the clearing up.
Most of the above proved impossible in 2020, of course, but let us hope New Year’s Eve 2021 can go ahead as normal.
The next day (January 1st) has its own tradition, too, as it happens. The new year begins, as you might expect from a city possessing such a musical pedigree, with a classical concert. The world-famous Neujahrskonzert (New Year’s Concert) starts around 11.15am with a live broadcast on TV.