Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria

Zacchaeus singing in Zirl

Applicant: Marktgemeinde Zirl
Province: Tyrol
Domain: Social Practices
Year of inclusion: 2015

Zacchaeus singing in Zirl is an annual fair tradition that takes place on the third Sunday in October starting at 4:30 a.m. Apart from the time of day, a special feature is above all the connection of religious and secular practice. Every year, around 200 people gather on the square in front of the church and sing the Zachäuslied (“Song of Zacchaeus”) along with the church choir and a group of wind players; this song was written during the 18th century by a sacristant from Zirl and has to do with repentance and penitence. Starting at the church, they proceed together to the next square in the village. There, the Zachäuslied is heard once more before the secular part of the fair begins. Musicians play, and people dance in the streets. Scouting groups and members of church youth groups offer doughnut-like pastries, which they make together the evening before. Zacchaeus singing contributes to a sense of community, with many individuals and associations involved in preparing for it. The
tradition in and of itself thus functions as a unifying element in this steadily growing town near Innsbruck, bringing together new arrivals with the people who grew up there.

The oldest evidence for the practice of Zacchaeus singing comes from the early 18th century. The song itself, which was written in 1723 by the sacristan Georg Kranebitter, refers to the New Testament figure of Zacchaeus. He is viewed as an archetype of repentance and atonement, and he stands for the willingness to give up one’s “comfortable” worldly life in favor of Christian brotherly love and the Ten Commandments. Tradition in Zirl would have it that the song was written in order to animate the community’s then-inhabitants to live life accordingly, but no specific details about how the song came to be are known. Though it also came to be sung in a number of other places in Austria, it is heard today only in Zirl and in the South Tyrolean community of Enneberg.
In Zirl, the local church choir has been in charge of the Zacchaeus singing tradition since the mid-19th century. Over time, however, more and more associations and groups became involved in this practice. These days, the church choir is joined by the wind players from the local music association, the parish priest in Zirl, acolytes and youth group members, boy and girl scouts, and primary school students along with their teachers. The structure according to which Zacchaeus singing proceeds has remained essentially the same, though progressively augmented by suitable elements: the primary schoolers, for example, create church fair flags and perform a dance with their teachers, a Zacchaeus fire is built and lit, and boy and girl scouts distribute free Krapfen [doughnut-like pastries] on the village square following the singing.
This combination of earnestness and joy, and of sacred and secular practice, is an essential characteristic of Zacchaeus Singing.