This is not a story of knights; no knight’s armor, no knight’s castles – not even swords. It does consist of plenty of honor, pride, old-fashioned traditions and to top it off a codex. Now when I imagine the Middle Ages, I believe some farmers must have been quite close to chivalry.
In times past, Austrian residents of Gailtal valley, mainly Noriker horse breeders, took advantage of their surefooted draught horses and operated a trade of wine and salt across the Alps. During these journeys they likely imitated or adapted what they discovered into a custom which lasted centuries and continued to the present day. The first written records of Kufenstechen did not appear before 1630, but we know that the rite is far older and likely related to knight festivals.
I arrived the night before the celebrations in Feistritz an der Gail, a village of around 660 in the province of Carinthia. Anticipating their most important annual upcoming festivity, I expected that everyone would be in a tizzy, but instead residents went about their quiet routines.
I began researching. As it is in small villages, stories change hands as often as a coin. I was told that once, a city in a nearby valley floated the idea of wanting to stage a copy of the Kufenstechen event. The indignation was perfect and provoked a huge discussion involving the whole Gailtal valley for months. The rumor that someone wanted to fake their traditions was much more than a personal offense for every single resident. They sharply underlined that the custom should not practiced by non-Gailtal born people. In conclusion, a code was written and sworn in by the villagers to secure the procedure of Kufenstechen; tying the custom to strict rules which had existed for centuries.
The rule states that 40 unmarried and childless men and women, all no younger than 16 and no older than 30 years, may participate. No matter what profession – engineers and bricklayers, soldiers and students, hairdressers and clerks – but it is necessary that they are born in Gailtal; only they alone are allowed to carry on the Kufenstechen tradition and pass it down from generation to generation. For the young people, there is no question whether to jump in or not, they do. It is an honor and even the youngest look forward to reaching the age that they can take on the responsible of ensuring their tradition survives.
I watched the final dance rehearsal under the lime trees in the evening. I noticed residents peeking from the surrounding houses, checking whether their offspring conveyed the essential seriousness of the event as at least 2,000 spectators were expected to visit the next day. I could not imagine how these guys, who looked and behaved like the most normal youths in the world, would transform into proud representatives of the “Gailtal” custom.
And how they changed!
Early in the morning, while the men dressed quickly in jackets, Lederhosen, hats and overknee boots, it took the girls and their mothers hours to get ready. The day before they had soaked the petticoat, produced from eight meters of fabric, in starched water and ironed it for more than six hours to create a stand-away wavy skirt. The traditional Gailtaler costume is very elaborate and precious as almost every piece is handmade and embroidered. In total, the outfit costs at least 2,000 Euros and it is worn without makeup or jewellery. Without exception, the dress is paraded on just this one day of the year.
The men’s excitement peaked during lunch in the presence of the women, right before the horse riding began. Obviously, it is dangerous as there is a risk of getting injured as the history of recent years has shown. In one unfortunate case, death occurred.
Fathers proudly patted their son’s shoulders, trying to hide that they were more excited than their children as they handed over the iron club, with which they had beaten the barrel when they were young themselves, decades earlier.
Maybe some of you do not see the point of dressing up in traditional clothes and riding bareback on Noriker horses, beating a wooden barrel attached to a pole – smashing it with an iron club until the very last wooden splinter has fallen to the ground. The winner, who beats down the last piece of wood, is then awarded a floral wreath. For these guys, this is a big deal, to be the bravest and the wildest, to be the one galloping the fastest and striking the hardest. To be the one who in the end wins the coronal for at least once in life is dignity. On the other hand, some say, it is highly shameful to be the worst rider. When their sons show huge courage, they bring pride and attention to their families who will later be honored with the congratulations from numerous villagers. Even weeks after the event, it will be still be the number one topic of conversation.
Directly after the horse riding the men ask the girls to dance under the lime trees. Call me corny, but this is a really cute thing when young men pay their respect to the young ladies. The dance is an old rite of introduction into the society which in ancient times was the only opportunity to have officially close physical contact with the opposite sex. These days it is certainly not the only contact between genders but what has lasted is that the dance starts slowly and orderly and finally ends in a hilarious polka supported by the men’s joyous yodeling.
Personally I have experienced wearing a traditional costume, or more precisely a Dirndl dress. When I was a child my mother put me into it – I hated it. It is very unlike me. But beyond that, I marvel at the young folk, retaining this amazing custom for at least another century.