The unique Tyrolean carnival

Good vs evil, day vs night, light vs dark, warm vs cold. These contrasts take centre stage at the Tyrolean carnival celebrations, which are held every year between 6 January (Epiphany) and Ash Wednesday. The carnival brings a lot of noise, creepy masks and all sorts of dances to conjure up the end of winter.
Innsbruck is a hotspot for this ancient Tyrolean tradition, which has survived the course of time from the distant past to the present day. It is mainly thanks to the many carnival associations that we are still able to experience carnival culture in Tyrol today.

Masks, noise and characters

It is no wonder that the carnival celebrations in Tyrol are so intense, so unruly, so fanatical and so wild. This mountainous region has always been exposed to the most extreme whims of nature. For thousands of years, the survival of the rural population was dependent on good weather and a good harvest.

Tyrolean carnival customs were born of this rural past. The desire to survive the frosty, harsh and inhospitable winter as quickly as possible has resulted in a rich treasure trove of other colourful carnival characters. Witches, wild men and many others are driven away by various other characters. Some of these are finely dressed and all of them come with deafening levels of noise and music. These days, the battle of good vs evil is often played out in front of thousands of spectators at the numerous carnival events, such as Schianen gian, Schleicherlaufen, Mullerlaufen, Wampelerreiten and more.

The witches

Witches are an indispensable part of alpine customs. They embody winter and all things bad, devilish and evil. It may seem like nice gesture when the witches clean spectators' shoes with their brooms during carnival but it is just a front. Your days are numbered. 

The Schleicher

This is one of the most common characters seen during the Tyrolean carnival celebrations. They sneak around wearing masks and with bells on their backs before suddenly standing up and shocking spectators, often letting out loud cries in the process. The town of Telfs is home to a particularly artistic Schleicher but they only hold a "Schleicherlauf" parade every five years.t.

The Tuxer

For centuries, Tyroleans were seen as "Tuxer". This carnival character, therefore, represents a noble yet easy-going Tyrolean who likes a little drink. The "Tuxer" from the Zillertal Valley earned the Tyroleans this reputation when they worked as traders throughout Europe. The smiling and friendly facial expressions combined with a smart outfit give these male characters their noble appearance.

The Spiegeltuxer

This is Tyrol's most famous carnival character. The costume includes a headdress that stands over one metre high and weighs around 14 kg, making the Spiegeltuxer stand out amongst the crowds of Matschgerer, Muller or Wampeler. They also wear traditional dress featuring the Tyrolean eagle, short black Lederhosen (leather trousers) and "Stitzln" (calf socks). 

The Zaggler

These characters get their name from the almost 100 "Zagglen" (tassels) sewn onto their blue outfit. They also wear headgear that features around 100 black rooster feathers, a mirror and a rabbit fur. Their unfriendly appearance is combined with jerky, powerful movements.

The Klötzler

These characters wear an outfit covered in colourful or brown-and-white wooden shingles that are also called "Klötzln" in Tyrol. The noise generated by the movement of these blocks is intended to make way for the masked characters that follow. The men who appear as the Klötzler character need to be quite fit because the wooden shingles add a lot of weight.

The Zottler

This character wears a grim mask and is known for his raw movements. The Zottler is bad-tempered because he represents winter and this means the other characters are after him. His clothing is covered in various fringes and his hat is shaped like a crest. 

The Melcher

This character is a reminder that carnival customs originally had important ties to alpine farming and agriculture. The Melcher is young and likeable, representing a funny and happy person. He wears a green cloth on his chest, the straps of his traditional Lederhosen (leather trousers) are embroidered and his belt is decorated with coins. 

The Weiße

This character is very beautiful, young and lively. His clothes are smart and include white trousers that feature red and green tassels, ribbons and bells that run down along the seam. The Weiße gets his name from his white shirt. In his hand, he carries an "Ulrichstecken", a stick that is cut off in autumn and bent in water. During carnival, the Weiße hops forwards and backwards over this curved crop.

The witches

Witches are an indispensable part of alpine customs. They embody winter and all things bad, devilish and evil. It may seem like nice gesture when the witches clean spectators' shoes with their brooms during carnival but it is just a front. Your days are numbered. 

The Schleicher

This is one of the most common characters seen during the Tyrolean carnival celebrations. They sneak around wearing masks and with bells on their backs before suddenly standing up and shocking spectators, often letting out loud cries in the process. The town of Telfs is home to a particularly artistic Schleicher but they only hold a "Schleicherlauf" parade every five years.t.

The Tuxer

For centuries, Tyroleans were seen as "Tuxer". This carnival character, therefore, represents a noble yet easy-going Tyrolean who likes a little drink. The "Tuxer" from the Zillertal Valley earned the Tyroleans this reputation when they worked as traders throughout Europe. The smiling and friendly facial expressions combined with a smart outfit give these male characters their noble appearance.

The Spiegeltuxer

This is Tyrol's most famous carnival character. The costume includes a headdress that stands over one metre high and weighs around 14 kg, making the Spiegeltuxer stand out amongst the crowds of Matschgerer, Muller or Wampeler. They also wear traditional dress featuring the Tyrolean eagle, short black Lederhosen (leather trousers) and "Stitzln" (calf socks). 

The Zaggler

These characters get their name from the almost 100 "Zagglen" (tassels) sewn onto their blue outfit. They also wear headgear that features around 100 black rooster feathers, a mirror and a rabbit fur. Their unfriendly appearance is combined with jerky, powerful movements.

The Klötzler

These characters wear an outfit covered in colourful or brown-and-white wooden shingles that are also called "Klötzln" in Tyrol. The noise generated by the movement of these blocks is intended to make way for the masked characters that follow. The men who appear as the Klötzler character need to be quite fit because the wooden shingles add a lot of weight.

The Zottler

This character wears a grim mask and is known for his raw movements. The Zottler is bad-tempered because he represents winter and this means the other characters are after him. His clothing is covered in various fringes and his hat is shaped like a crest. 

The Melcher

This character is a reminder that carnival customs originally had important ties to alpine farming and agriculture. The Melcher is young and likeable, representing a funny and happy person. He wears a green cloth on his chest, the straps of his traditional Lederhosen (leather trousers) are embroidered and his belt is decorated with coins. 

The Weiße

This character is very beautiful, young and lively. His clothes are smart and include white trousers that feature red and green tassels, ribbons and bells that run down along the seam. The Weiße gets his name from his white shirt. In his hand, he carries an "Ulrichstecken", a stick that is cut off in autumn and bent in water. During carnival, the Weiße hops forwards and backwards over this curved crop.

Carnival celebrations and "Wampelerreiten" in Axams

Where: Axams; when: the big Wampeler parade takes place every 4 years on Faschingssontag (the Sunday before Lent); Wampelerreiten is held every year on Unsinniger Donnerstag (the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday); on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list since 2016
 

During carnival in Axams, bulky characters can be seen moving leisurely but somewhat awkwardly through the village. It is Wampeler season. This custom has even made it onto the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.

The Wampelerreiten event is one of the most exceptional and unusual carnival traditions in the Alps. It is almost like a form of "martial arts" with fixed rules. The name Wampeler comes from the term Wampe, which means pot belly. The Wampeler get their appearance by stuffing their clothes full of hay from the second cut. Only selected men and boys from Axams are allowed to dress up as Wampeler and Reiter (riders).

The Wampeler characters wear a coarse white linen shirt, a red skirt over a pair of trousers, a wide leather belt and sturdy shoes. They also carry a stick for balance and defence. Padded with hay from the second cut, they bob and weave through the village in a crouched position. On first glance, this motion looks quite lazy, but it is actually very tiring. Clear rules determine the course of this exhausting custom where the Reiter characters attempt to throw the Wampeler characters down onto their backs. The actual heroes of this custom are any Wampeler characters who still have a white vest and are injury-free after two parades or the big Wampeler parade held every 4 years. 


Other carnival traditions in Axams:
Schnölln, Banden gian and Lanigerschaun

The carnival celebrations in Axams are very intense. They always begin on the first Monday after Epiphany with the "Eintampern" event that features carnival characters and the Kirchtagsschnöller whip crackers. In the time that follows, the people of Axams celebrate with weekly "Banden gian" when they entertain guests with "Lanigerschaugn" performances. Every Thursday evening during carnival, groups of masked characters visit private homes, farmhouses and, above all, local guesthouses and restaurants. Then they challenge the audience to dance. The celebrations last until midnight and can get quite boisterous as the characters dance around accompanied by their own musicians, bears, the odd Wampeler or two, Tuxer, Flitscheler, Bujazzln and other "Lanigern" characters.

The Schleicherlaufen in Telfs

Where: Telfs; when: every 5 years on Fasnachtssonntag (the Sunday before Lent); listed as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage since 2010.

You know it's the day of the Schleicherlaufen parade when the sun is carried through the town of Telfs early in the morning and you pass bears, monkeys, toads and elephants in the street. 

The basic structure of this custom is very old, the current version much less so. The various carnival customs in the area around ​​Telfs came together in 1768 to form the "Telfer Schleicherlaufen". An incident from the time documented just how rough the custom was in the years before. One man was sentenced to two days' imprisonment on "water and bread" that year because he behaved in an aggravating way during the "Maskererlauffen" (masked festivities) in Telfs. Another document from the time complained: "These fiends run angrily around the streets attacking anyone they meet along the way with fists, whips and wet and sooty rags." What's more: the bottles of liquor they carry around only increase their anger and make the masked men "more animal than human". This was the beginning of the end of the wild celebrations. In 1890, the Schleicherlaufen was recognised as an "attraction" and, "as a precaution", it was only held every five years from then on – on Fasnachtssonntag (the Sunday before Lent).

Giant hats, velvet and silk

The links between the Schleicher carnival characters from Telfs and alpine agriculture can still be seen in the various characters today, especially when looking at the hats worn by the Telfer Schleicher and the "Lantern Carrier" character who opens the Schleicherlauf parade. The hats are still slightly reminiscent of the "Buschn" worn by alpine farmers during the traditional "Almabtrieb" parades in autumn, when animals are brought down into the towns and villages from their summer pastures high up in the mountains. The Lantern Carrier is a remnant of the old custom where people would put a candle on their hat to see in the dark of night.

 What are the "Schleicher"? They are traditionally Tyrolean carnival characters who sneak around with masks on and then suddenly come up to shocked spectators with loud cries and clangs. Today, however, it is a little different. The groups of Schleicher form the foundation of the carnival celebrations in Telfs. They are colourfully dressed and wrapped in velvet and silk. They wear large bells on their backs and stand out with their extraordinary and magnificent hats, which also act as a symbol for the respective groups. The hats are often one metre high and weigh eight kilograms. The Schleicher stride along with dignity and hop around in a circle doing funny dance steps.

In addition to the Schleicher, many other typical masked Tyrolean characters and carnival symbols also play a role in the celebrations in Telfs, including bears, travellers, male and female Tuxer, male and female Senner, wild men, miracle doctors and bird traders.

The Muller and Matschgerer parade in the MARTA villages

Where: carnival parades and events in Mühlau, Arzl, Rum, Thaur and Absam

Every year, these villages come together to hold one large Muller and Matschgerer parade. The event is held on the second Sunday before Lent and takes place in a different village each year.

This carnival celebration east of Innsbruck has a long history and was shaped by the royal court. The villages are the most famous carnival spots in Tyrol and basically lie in a line from Innsbruck like pearls on a string: Mühlau, Arzl, Rum, Thaur and Absam, in short: the MARTA villages. The carnival celebrations here can be traced back to customs of the court and the tradition still stands out today thanks to the colourful variety of masks. In these villages, Muller and Matschgerer are out and about from the first day of the carnival season to the last.

A cradle of Tyrolean carnival tradition

The "Mullen" starts after Epiphany and lasts until Ash Wednesday, as is also customary for carnival celebrations elsewhere. The word "Mullen", however, really packs a punch. The term is believed to come from the medieval word "mummerey", which means "jokes and fun". We also know who loved "mummerey" above all else: Duke Sigmund der Münzreiche (Sigmund the Rich), the uncle of Emperor Maximilian I. In 1472, Sigmund reportedly spent the entire carnival season in his castle in Thaur where he had women hold him captive – and shame be to him who thinks evil of it. Emperor Maximilian also used to indulge in carnival customs, apparently wearing a mask made of solid steel: a bizarre helmet "adorned", of all things, with a hooked nose. The term "Matschgern" can also be used to refer to exuberant celebrations and can be traced back to the word "mask".

Most of Tyrol's famous carnival characters make an appearance at the Muller and Matschgerer parade, from Zottler, Zaggler, Hiatltuxer and Melcher to the Weiße, the Albäuerischen and the elegant Spiegeltuxer and Altartuxer. The Muller or Matschgerer are usually accompanied by bears and wild men, sometimes also by monkeys or goats. 

The main events take place towards the end of the carnival season but the custom is celebrated before then in guesthouses, at smaller events and even in private homes. The custom requires audience participation. The carnival characters go around and hit spectators lightly on the shoulder. The spectators are then considered "abgemullt" and are immediately offered a mouthful of schnapps.

Schiane gian

Where: Igls, Vill. When: a traditional carnival parade held every three years.

The name "Schiane gian" comes from the German "schön" (beautiful) and suggests that this is a rather noble carnival parade.
The custom is primarily practised in the villages at the foot of Patscherkofel mountain and is characterised by the fact that the masked characters move from village to village. All of the masks, characters and animals that make the Tyrolean carnival so unique can usually be seen at the Schiane gian parade. 

Schiane Gian

Schellenschlagen – the ringing of the cowbells

Where: Ellbögen, Patsch, Sistrans; when: Ellbögen and Sistrans: Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday). Patsch: Unsinniger Donnerstag (the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday)

"Schellenschlagen" refers to the traditional ringing of the cowbells. This event is similar to the normal carnival parades in Tyrol but can be far more chaotic than the Schleicher or Muller parades. For many years, this tradition was almost lost. This was the case in Ellbögen, for example, where it was eventually women who brought back the practice of ringing of the cowbells because the men were "too lazy". This is something unique in the history of carnival traditions in Tyrol because, for centuries, carnival celebrations were only performed by men. 

The ringing of the cowbells is usually led by a witch who jumps around and raises her broom to make the people following behind her ring the large cowbell attached to their backs. 

Sistrans

The Türggeler from Zirl

Where: Zirl; various performances between 6 January and Ash Wednesday

The Türggeler from Zirl are a good example of how a tradition can be born. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the other carnival customs and characters so, in 1976, they came up with some new ideas. The Türggeler wear costumes made of corn husks, carnival masks and hats covered in 3,000 grains of corn. They are the central characters in the carnival celebrations in Zirl and are threatened by evil witches and a mythical creature called the "Habergeiß". Another character, the "Goggeler" (rooster), tries to destroy spring by wildly pecking at the Türggeler. The Türggeler keep the upper hand, however, and start performing dances that represent the sowing and processing of corn in the warmer seasons.

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