In Austria – and all across the German-speaking northern flank of the Alps – it’s more than just an expression. Each autumn the cows really do come home, as the grazing season on the high alpine meadows comes to an end and the seasons prepare to turn. The Austrian autumn is glorious – long, warm and settled – but winter can come with brutal rapidity in the mountains. One day the weather can be teeshirt-and-sunglasses fine, the next bleak and snowy.
In the Salzkammergut region of Austria the days before Three Kings are brightened by the tradition of Glöcklerlaufen, in which white-clad young men run through the lakeside villages carrying incredible (and heavy) wood and paper constructions on their heads, illuminated by candles and depicting anything from the sun to Salzburg Cathedral or the Silent Night Chapel. The origin of the tradition is pagan: the runners symbolise good spirits driving out the bad at the start of the year, their white clothing and illuminated headgear combining to drive away the darkness.
The village of Ebensee boasts the best-known Glöcklerlauf and the most elaborate designs, but the ritual has spread throughout the region, adding a much-needed splash of colour to the early January gloom.
In Ebensee in 2010 the participation of female Glöcklerinnen for the first time almost led to a boycott by the men. But in St Gilgen the run remains the preserve of young, single males.