A Remembrance of the Past; Building for the Future." ~ Eve Eckert Koehler

Remembering Our Danube Swabian Ancestors

About the origin and content of the Banat Kirchweih

by Peter Krier & Hans Gehl
Translated by Nick Tullius
Published at by Jody McKim Pharr, 4 May 2013

Our biggest folk festival, the Kirchweih (church consecration festival) was celebrated in the entire Banat, and also in the entire German cultural area, from Alsace and Lorraine to East Prussia, and from Switzerland to Schleswig. The three main variants of the name (from North to South): Kirmes, (Kirchmesse) Kirchweih and Kirchtag, were called Kerweih, Kirweih, Kirmes, Kermes, Kärm, Kirm, Kilbi Kärbe or Kirtag in the various dialects, but always meant the same thing. Even if the individual custom elements of the festival have changed over the years and there are sequence of festival events from region to region and from village to village, it has two main elements, a religious one and a secular one.

Components of the Kirchweih

1. The first main element is the part referring to the church. The festival of the consecration of the church or the patronal festival, the name day of the church patron, on which the church was solemnly consecrated by the diocesan bishop, to be celebrated annually, is the starting point of the festival. The earlier assumption that the Kirchweih continued a Germanic harvest festival or was associated with the Germanic mythology, is purely speculative, intentionally ignoring the historical conditions, or is based on ideological motives during the Nazi era. Similarly, the Communist ideology tried in vain to present the Kerwei (the term it preferred over Kirchweih) as a pure harvest festival (Germanic yet again) without connection to the church.

The part referring to the church includes a solemn high mass with an impressive sermon about the history of the local church after the settlement. All of the Kirchweih pairs took part, and the priest blessed the Kirchweih bouquet, followed by a procession around the Church.

Church consecrations took place from spring to autumn, so there was a multitude of patron saints and Kirchweih celebrations. Because it was customary to visit relatives in neighbouring villages at their Kirchweih and the celebrations usually lasted for three days, sometimes the harvest work suffered. Emperor Joseph II in 1786 tried to reduce the time lost due to Kirchweih celebrations taking place throughout the year, by moving them to a single Sunday after the harvest. Like many of his other reforms, this one did not take hold. Thus the various Kirchweih days remained throughout the Banat, but only the ecclesiastical celebration ("em Pharre sei Kerweih” or “Kerchefescht") took place on the consecration day, with a separate civic (or farmers') Kirchweih to be celebrated in autumn.

2. The secular Kirchweih gathered many people in an atmosphere resembling a seasonal market. Tradesmen would offer their goods; a funfair with sellers' booths, shooting galleries, and merry-go-round was added, and various folk games, entertainment and dance following soon. After the introductory ritual dances of the Kirchweih pairs around the decorated tree and the musicians placed on an elevated platform made of empty barrels, the general dance for all followed. The three festival days with banquets and visits by relatives were preceded by a major cleanup and a pre-festival, and completed by the Nachkerweih (post-Kirchweih weekend). The Banat Kirchweih was the biggest secular festival of the year (in all villages and small towns) and as a fall celebration, a counterpart to the carnival (Fasching) in the spring time. One hundred years ago, it was accompanied by salvos of the shooting clubs, just like the highest church festivals: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi.

Motif symbiosis in the Kirchweih tradition

The ancestors of the Banat Swabians and Montan Germans had brought from their regions of origin not only divers dialects, but also different customs and traditions. The Kirchweih in their Banat villages incorporated elements of those customs and traditions. Consequently, the relatively uniform Kirchweih customs of the Banat emerged only over time. The strongest element was likely to prevail in every village. Nevertheless, a detailed examination of the Banat Kirchweih customs shows a multitude of names for the actors and their actions. Only a dissertation or at least a thesis, based on surveys in all villages and town, and a representation of content and language in a special Kirchweih-Atlas could do it justice. It is already too late for that, so we must be satisfied with a representation of the most important features. Local special features can be found in the most local monographs[1].

The general course of the Banat Kirchweih is essentially similar to that found in Upper Franconia, as described by Eduard Rühl[2] and Franz Klein[3]. But some elements of the Banat Kirchweih originate from other areas as well, and change in the course of the years.

Just like in May, the autumn festival features decorated trees or trees interlaced with garlands and with green tops (in woodless areas a decorated pole), similar to the trees brought in from the forest in lower Austria and placed as a maypole on the dance floor. The autumn festival took over bouquets, demand course such as in Rhenanian Franconia (also, inviting the village notables to the Festival), songs, dances and the symbolic digging out and burying of the Kirchweih bottle or doll. The garland of wheat ears, the barrel next to the erected Kirchweih tree, the rooster beating[4] (in the Montan Banat and Semlak) and bowling for the ram (as in lower Austria) all come from the autumn festivals. However, under no circumstances is the Kirchweih a harvest festival.

The Palatine Kerweih-bouquet, the usual symbol of the festival in its various implementations, and the metre-high rosemary bouquet decorated with coloured bands that in the Banat Heath communities is usually stuck in a quince and will be auctioned in addition to the silk cloth and decorated hat, are actually missing from the Kirchweih of Glogowatz. However, the tree is also missing in the Alemanic village of Saderlach, and the bottle of wine buried at the end of the Kirchweih probably comes from the neighbouring Palatine villages, while the bouquet is represented by the decorated hat of Kirchweih boys. (Gehl: Lebensformen 2003, p. 164-169).

Corresponding to the serious part of the Baden Kirchweih is the cemetery visit on the feast day, in order to include the deceased villagers. The boisterous hustle and bustle of the Palatine Kerwe is definitely missing here. To illustrate, here is an appropriate episode from the description of the Kerweih in the schwowische dialect, by Ludwig Schwarz (De Kaule-Baschtl. Vol. 1, Timisoara: Facla Publishing 1977, p. 243):

Ich sin dann – noch immer bloßkoppich – uf de Dollwig Michl zu un han gasaat:

"Michl, dei Großvater is gstorb.“

"Gott gib em die ewichi Ruh“, hat de Michl uf des gsaat, hat uf die Erd gschaut, hat awer dann sei Hut runerghol un noh ihm die Kerweibuwe eene noh em anre, wie se halt erfahr han, was passieert is. Dann is es Bärwl kumm, em Michl sei Kerweihpaar, hat scheen die Streiß, die rosmarinzwacke un die bandle vum Michl seim Hut runerghol, hat de Michl dann an der Hand angepackt un is, ohne aach nor een Wort zu saan, mitm naus uf die Gass. Dort sin die zwei dann bis an de Grawerand, de Michl hat sei wein aus der kerweiflasch in de grawe geleert, dann han se sich scheen an der Hand ghol un sin langsam ufm Michl seim Großvater sei Haus zu. "Dei Schmerz is jetz aach mei Schmerz“, hat s‘ Bärwl gsaat, "un dei Trauer aach meini.“

Ja, so is des de Brauch geween bei uns in Kleenwalddorf in seler Zeit. Die Lewendichi hat mer wohl net immer helfe un schun ganz seltn zu ihrem Recht kumme losse kenne, awer die Toteni, deni hat mer die Ehr angetun, wie’s sich gheert.


Then I went – still with my head uncovered – over to Dollwig Michl and told him: 

"Michl, your grandfather has died.“

"Gott give him the eternal rest“, answered Michl, bending his head down, he removed his hat, as did the Kerwei boys, one after the other, as they found out what had happened. Then Bärwl came over, the girl paired with Michl for the Kerwei, quietly removed the bouquets, the rosemary branches and the bands from Michl’s hat, then grabbed Michl by the hand and without saying a word, took him outside to the street. The two of them then went to the edge of the ditch, where Michl poured the wine from his Kerwei bottle in the ditch. Then, hand-in-hand, they slowly went towards the house of Michl’s grandfather. "Your grief is now also my grief“, said Bärwl, "and your sorrow is also my sorrow.”

Yes, that was our custom in Kleenwalddorf (Little Forrest Village) in those days. One could not always help the living, much less support them in achieving their rights, but we honoured the dead, as was only proper.

Changing Customs 

As long as customs live on and have not become history, changes will occur. Thus we have seen the development of the regional-custom dress (Trachtenkleid) to the mini skirt and back again. Some elements of the Banat Kirchweih customs have generally survived: decorated hats, Kirchweih tree, group walk to the church, parade through the village accompanied by the brass band, Kirchweih dance, unearthing and burial of the Kirchweih, and others. Some customs can be found only rarely. In the Thuringian forest, one can still find rooster beating3 a custom practiced in the Montan Banat (but no real rooster will be killed anymore), or the conviction and execution in fun of a boy dressed as a bear, or the punishment of a doll made of straw.

The Kirchweih custom also known in the Banat as "Bowling for a ram" is still a common Kirchweih custom in Geldersheim near Schweinfurtin Germany. The ram, decorated with ribbons and flowers, walks in front of the Kirchweih procession, is present during the bowling tournament and is then served as a roast on the Kirchweih table. Some cheating actually takes place when an old tame sheep walks in front of the Kirchweih procession, but a young buck is subsequently served as a roast. In a Kirchweih procession painted by Stefan Jäger, one can see that the decorated Kirchweih ram was also part of the Kirchweih tradition in the Banat. The celebration takes place in the village square or market square, often under a large chestnut tree with the Evangelicals, and under a linden tree with the Catholics. In some places in Upper Franconia, a platform in the branches of the linden tree provides a place for the musicians to sit.

The decorated rosemary bouquet, customary in the Banat, has not been observed in Germany. However, in the Rhineland the lads actively participating in the Kirchweih team are called "Straußbuwe" (“lads of the bouquet”). In some places, a bouquet of flowers is passed from dancing couple to dancing couple, until an alarm goes off. The pair holding the bouquet at that moment becomes the leading couple (“Vortänzerpaar”), which is then accompanied to their home by the entire Kirchweih team, where they host the entire team. The so-called "American auction" actually comes from the Rhine. But the auction of the Kirchweih bouquet and of the cut-off rosemary branches, highlight of the Festival in the Banat, is entirely missing in Germany.


1. Gehl, Hans: Donauschwäbische Lebensformen an der mittleren Donau (Danube-Swabian life forms on the middle Danube) Marburg 2003, p. 167;

2. Rühl, Eduard: Sonderformen fränkischer Kirchweihen. Ein Beitrag zur Folklore des östlichen Franken (Special Frankish Church consecrations. A contribution to the folklore of Eastern Franconia) Regensburg 1953, p. 115

3. Klein, Franz: Billed. Chronik einer Heidegemeinde im Banat in Quellen und Dokumenten (Billed. Chronicle of a Heath Community in the Banat in sources and documents 1765-1980, Vienna 1980, pp. 245;

4. To knock off the head of a previously slaughtered rooster, hung upside down in a basket. Whoever manages the decisive blow, will be named rooster king the village for a year.