Following an old tradition, locals in the farmhouses of the Salzburger Saalachtal “go smoking”…
… filling incense burners with frankincense and herbs.
Darkness falls early over the Salzburger Land, marking the start of the Advent season. The snowy wind blusters in from the tops of the mountains down into the valley, with the first storm of the winter season making its powerful way down onto the houses. The scent of Christmas biscuits, fruitcake and baked apples awakens childhood memories and anticipation of Christmas grows. December in the Salzburger Saalachtal is a time of mysticism and tradition, when for the Rauchnächte (smoking nights), the home, farm and barn are smoked with frankincense and herbs, which is a constant part of the traditional custom.
The traditional smoking process is still practised in many homes and on many farms in the Salzburger Saalachtal on the three Rauchnächte: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany. Purifying your home with smoke is a symbolic gesture to mark the closing of the year that has passed and to prepare for the new year. At the same time you traditionally give thanks with your rosary and ask for God’s blessing.
Traditional smoking at the Lutzbauer farm in Unken
Barbara and Hans Haider run the Lutzbauer herb farm with their three children at the foot of the Sonnberg mountain near Unken. They have been working to cultivate and handle local medicinal herbs for many years now. The preservation of ancient knowledge is of primary concern to Lutzbauer’s farmers. As they explain, “With each practice that is lost, we lose a piece of our culture.” At Christmas, before gifts are exchanged and when the entire family is gathered together at home, Hans Haider produces his old cast iron incense burner, for it is time to “rachn geh” (“go a-smoking”) on this first Rauchnacht (“smoke night”) celebration.
He says, “I take the herbs used for smoking from our sacred herb bundles. In Unken we traditionally collect seven different herbs for these herb bundles on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. We combine mullein, St John’s wort, juniper, hemp agrimony, wood ragwort, yarrow and wild marjoram into a stately bundle, which we then carry to the church on 15 August to be blessed and then dry. On Christmas Eve, the herbs are finely chopped and divided into three portions. One portion is for smoking during the Rauchnächte, one portion is fed to the cattle with salt on Christmas Eve and the last portion is kept as a kind of first aid kit for the coming year.”
“Rachn geh” is not to be missed
tire Haider family gathers at home before exchanging presents when the Lutzbauer farmer removes the embers from the tiled stove for smoking. No one can miss the smoking because, according to popular belief, this would bring misfortune.
The frankincense resin is added to the glowing embers, already covered by a thin layer of ash.
Only then does he scatter the chopped herbs from the herb bundle into the burner, and before long smoke and the scent of Christmas begins to fill the room. Hans Haider covers the smoke with his hat to ward off headaches in the coming year, and then off he goes through the entire Lutzbauer property. Hans Haider leads the procession, followed by Barbara and the children. The smoking even continues in the adjacent livestock building. After all, even the cattle should be protected against any misfortune in the coming year. This ritual is repeated on the other Rauchnacht celebration nights, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany, to cleanse the house and receive blessings for the coming year.
The Lutzbauer farmers have been heavily involved in the smoking tradition since moving to the farm in 2000. Barbara Haider says, “When we moved into the old farm, parts of which date back to the 15th century, we noticed a bad atmosphere in the house. A friend advised us to smoke out the house. We followed this advice and smoked the house several times with sage and frankincense. We soon noticed a change and really started to feel at home on the farm. The success we experienced in our own home has led us to delve into the tradition of smoking.”
Smoking to combat “bad air”
Smoking is not just a tradition reserved for the Rauchnacht festival. If there is a nervous vibe, “bad air” is truly perceptible or if there is tension in the atmosphere from an approaching storm, you can grab your incense burner and follow the old tradition of purifying the air with frankincense and herbs. “The frankincense acts as a disinfectant, and has a refreshing and mood-lifting effect. The St John’s wort also has a positive effect on the mind and the juniper smoke casts out evil,” explains the lady of the farm, demonstrating her vast herbal knowledge.
Herbal life at the Lutzbauer farm
A number of herbal products from the farm’s own herb garden are available from the herb farm at the Lutzbauer farm. During the summer months, Barbara and Hans Haider organise herb walks along the medicinal herb paths for adults and children. During a seminar, learn about the production of tinctures and ointments, as well as all about practice of smoking with domestic resins according to ancient tradition used by many farmhouses in the Salzburger Saalachtal and of course about the herbs themselves