Advent and Christmas traditions
Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is a time filled with religious customs and festivities.
The Advent wreath consists of four candles anchored in a circle of evergreen branches. This German Lutheran custom has been adopted by many families and churches, also in South Tyrol. Christians light an Advent candle as they say a prayer at the beginning (Sunday) of each of the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
Klöckeln is a tradition which is still alive in certain valleys. In the Val Sarentino/Sarntal it can be traced back to the 16th century and has survived in a very original form down to today. The name “Klöckeln” derives from a dialect word for “klopfen” or “knock”. The three “Klöckel nights” are the three Thursday evenings before the winter solstice. Masked youths move in groups from house to house creating a din and asking for gifts. While doing so they sing two songs, the “Klöckel” song and the thanking song, both to handed down tunes. Two men dressed as a married couple – the “Zussler” - play an important role. Nobody is certain as to the origins of this tradition, which probably has its roots in pagan customs.
St. Nicholas’s Day falls on 6th December and is celebrated in many villages with a procession. Dressed in bishop’s robes, St. Nicholas hands out sweets to children, accompanied by angels dressed in white and the “Krampuses”. They are devil-like, horned creatures with wood-carved masks, clothed in hides, rattling chains and cowbells, and beating “naughty” children around the thighs with birches. At Stelvio/Stilfs in the Val Venosta/Vinschgau valley this tradition takes on a form of its own. It is called “Klosen” (from Santa Claus) and draws spectators from all over the region. Several days before Christmas families set up the Nativity Crib at home with figures made from clay or wood, often carved at home, replicating the manger scene where Jesus was born as described in the bible. It features the Holy Family in the stable with the shepherds and angels in adoration of the child. From 6th January they are joined by the Three Wise Men or Magi. Tip: The Diocesan Museum in the Prince Bishop’s Palace (Hofburg) at Bressanone/Brixen accommodates one of the world’s largest collection of Nativity cribs.
Incense is burned in South Tyrolean homes on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the evening of 6th January. In these three incense nights the family members carry a pan full of embers - over which incense has been sprinkled - around the house and farmstead praying for benediction. On the first days of the new year the Sternsinger (star singers) go from house to house. They are children or youths dressed as the Three Wise Men who, according to the Christmas story, came from the Orient bearing gifts for the Christ-child. They sing special songs and collect donations. With consecrated chalk they write the year and the initials C+M+B (Christus mansionem benedicat - Christ bless this house) on the house door.