Anyone travelling in Vorarlberg on the first weekend after Ash Wednesday will be amazed by burning towers and imposing fires everywhere. Already the evening before there are piles of wood everywhere, which are guarded around the clock.
The traditional "Funkenabbrennen" (burning of the sparks) is an ancient Swabian-Alemannic tradition, the origin is not completely clear. Some may think that the burning of wooden towers and witch dolls is a remnant of the terrible witch burnings in early modern times, but this is a misconception! The origins of the fires can be found, on the one hand, in ancient pagan fertility rites with sacrificial fires, and on the other hand, in the end of the Swabian-Alemannic "Fastnacht" and the beginning of Carnival. In Vorarlberg, the practice of "Funken" has a long tradition; in almost every community, a spark fire is organized by the local spark guild, the local fire department or the carnival guilds. In 2010, Vorarlberg's "Funkensonntag" was even included in the world cultural heritage.
Every year on "Funkensonntag" (Sunday of the weekend), the so-called "Funkentanne" is lit. This is a piled wooden tower, consisting of collected materials, such as old Christmas trees. According to popular belief, the spark is supposed to drive away winter and ignite happiness. As a symbol of the beginning of spring is the winter witch, which is attached to the top of the spark. It is usually prepared with black powder so that it can explode in the fire. Once the spark is lit, the spark master gets nervous... not without reason! He waits for the witch to explode - if it does not, it must be buried the next day.
In Vorarlberg, "Funkensonntag" has a second name: "Küachlisunntig" - here the name says it all! The delicious little cakes from yeast dough, refined with powdered sugar, not only make the hearts of the spark guild members beat faster. Eating "Funkaküachli" is a must during a visit to the Funken - and if you can't get enough of it, you can easily bake the pastry at home - here's the recipe.
There are numerous exciting customs surrounding the "Funken", which are carried out differently in each valley - even in the individual villages.
In Braz, there is a very special custom that every member of the spark guild must pay as a membership fee: 13 "Buschel"! But what are "Buschel"?
The spark in Braz is traditionally built with wooden bushes, which are tied from branches of different woods. In the middle of the funken, the approx. 20m high Funken fir is anchored in the ground. The bushes are tied with wire around the fir. For one spark you need 420 bushes! Beside the fir and the bushes the spark is filled with pallets and old Christmas trees, at the top hangs the spark witch. The spectacle is accompanied by the torch swinging.
In Dalaas, Wald am Arlberg and Klösterle, the sparking towers are not made of old Christmas trees as in most other communities - the construction method invites amazement. Without nails, screws or other fastening materials, a wooden tower made of logs is stacked high, and the spark witch is attached to the top. The exact technique differs from village to village - while in Dalaas a square tower is built, in Wald am Arlberg the hexagonal construction method is used.
In Klösterle, the afternoon of Funken Saturday is specially arranged for the smallest members of the community. Traditionally, there is the so-called "children's spark": Under the expert guidance of the spark master, torches are built, with which the children are allowed to light the tower on Sunday. To ensure that no one gets ahead of the children, the spark tower is guarded around the clock by the spark watch.
Vorarlberg Tourismus, Wikipedia, UNESCO Funkensonntag, Funkenzunft Braz, https://cdn3.vol.at/2008/03/Infos_funken.pdf, Funkenzunft Dalaas, Funkenzunft Klösterle, Funkenzunft Wald am Arlberg, Heimatleuchten: Wilder Winter
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