Austria: National Customs and Folklore Treasures

In ancient times, the region around the market town of Weitensfeld in the Gurk Valley was covered by dense forests, and served as a refuge for the Celts. The area probably began to be settled on a larger scale in the 12th century, with Weitensfeld being first mentioned in documents in 1131. The town acquired the status of a market in 1211, and was granted the right to bear a coat of arms in 1629. The town is in possession of the oldest town flag in Carinthia, over 200 years old. The town is also the origin of an artistic treasure, the "Magdalenenscheibe", Austria's oldest glass window, dating from around 1170 and now kept in the Provincial Museum in Klagenfurt. The "Weitensfeld Civic Oath" is a monument of legal history, and was recorded by the market registrar in 1765.

Each year at Whitsun, one of Carinthia's most delightful traditions is performed, the Weitensfeld "Kranzlreiten". It is a kind of solemn pledge that recalls the outbreak of the plague around 400 years ago. The Black Death is said to have raged furiously, and according to legend the only survivors were three sons of the citizens of the town and the daughter of the lord of Thurnhof Castle in Zweinitz. The young men courted the noble lady, who challenged them to a contest, the winner of which won her hand in marriage. This was the origin of the Kranzelreiten, and has since been held every year to prevent disaster befalling the town of Weitensfeld. The traditional ceremony was held even during the most difficult war years, when there was a shortage of both horses and riders.

Today, Kranzelreiten consists of a running race and a horse race, each between three young men from trading families in the town. It begins on Whit Sunday, with the invitation ride to the neighbouring villages and the singing of "G'stanzl" by the residents of the market town. The actual contest takes place on Whit Monday, when the statue of the Virgin Mary on the market fountain is decorated in a white dress and red scarf, with a bunch of keys in her left hand and a peony in her right. A group of riders gallops down the route of the race three times, from the Upper Market to the Virgin Fountain, a symbol of the banishing of the Plague. The race between the three horsemen then takes place, followed by three runners. The victor is taken in a ceremonial procession to the Virgin on the Fountain and receives a wreath, a silk cloth and a pair of stockings, and is allowed to kiss the Virgin on the Fountain. Every 25 years, the tradition is modified, and the victor's kiss and wreath are bestowed on a genuine May bride instead of the stone statue.

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