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Sunday in Austria, Russia and the United States

Elaine Marie Jordan

Review and excerpts from The Story of the Trapp Family Singersby Maria von Trapp
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949
Von Trapp family book cover
Recently I came upon The Story of the Trapp Family Singers written by Maria von Trapp. From it, one can gain a more realistic idea of the character of the author, as well as an edifying picture of the Catholic family life and customs in pre-World War II Austria.

One chapter in particular titled “The Land without a Sunday” - comparing the joyful Austrian Sunday with Sundays in the Communist Russia and in the United States - caught my attention. I will let her explain the title:

“Our neighbors in Austria were a young couple, Baron and Baroness K. They were getting increasingly curious about Russia and what life there was really like. One day they decided to take a six-week-trip all over Russia in their car. This was in the time when it was still possible to get a visa. Of course, at the border they were received by a special guide who watched their every step and did not leave them for a moment until he deposited them safely again at the border, but they still managed to get a good first-hand impression.

"Upon their return, they wrote a book about their experiences, and when it was finished, they invited their neighbors and friends to their home in order to read some of their work to them. I shall always recall how slowly and solemnly Baron K. read us the title 'The Land without a Sunday.'

"Of all the things they had seen and observed, one experience had most deeply impressed them: that Russia had done away with Sunday. This had shocked them even more than what they saw of Siberian concentration camps or of the misery and hardship in cities and country. The absence of Sunday seemed to be the root of all the evil.

"'Instead of a Sunday,' Baron K. told us, 'the Russians have a day off. This happens at certain intervals which vary in different parts of the country. First they had a five-day-week, with the sixth day off, then they had a nine-day-work period, with the tenth day off; then again it was an eight-day-week. What a difference between a day off and a Sunday! The people work in shifts. While one group enjoys its day off, the others continue to work in the factories, farms or stores, which are always open. As a result the over-all impression throughout the country was that of incessant work, work, work. The atmosphere was one of constant rush and drive; finally, we confessed to each other that what we were missing most was not a well-cooked meal, or a hot bath, but a quiet, peaceful Sunday with church bells ringing and people resting after prayer.'"

Sunday in pre-war Austria

Maria von Trapp then portrays the Catholic Austrian Sunday she knew: “As I have spent most of my life in rural areas, it is Sunday in the country that I shall describe.

“First of all, it begins on Saturday afternoon. In some parts of the country the church bell rings at three o'clock, in others at five o'clock, and the people call it "ringing in the Feierabend." Just as some of the big feasts begin the night before - on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, Easter Eve - so every Sunday throughout the year also starts on its eve. That gives Saturday night its hallowed character. When the church bell rings, the people cease working in the fields. They return with the horses and farm machinery, everything is stored away into the barns and sheds, and the barnyard is swept by the youngest farm-hand. Then everyone takes "the" bath and the men shave.

Von Trapp family

The von Trapp family in their "Sunday best"
“There is much activity in the kitchen as the mother prepares part of the Sunday dinner, perhaps a special dessert; the children get a good scrub; everyone gets ready his or her Sunday clothes, and it is usually the custom to put one's room in order-all drawers, cupboards and closets. Throughout the week the meals are usually short and hurried on a farm, but Saturday night everyone takes his time. Leisurely they come strolling to the table, standing around talking and gossiping. After the evening meal the Rosary is said. In front of the statue or picture of the Blessed Mother burns a vigil light.

“After the Rosary the father will take a big book containing all the Epistles and Gospels of the Sundays and feast days of the year, and he will read the pertinent ones now to his family. The village people usually go to Confession Saturday night, while the folks from the farms at a distance go on Sunday morning before Mass. Saturday night is a quiet night. There are no parties. People stay at home, getting prepared for Sunday. They go to bed rather early.

“On Sunday everyone puts on his finery. The Sunday dress is exactly what its name implies - clothing reserved to be worn only on Sunday. We may have one or the other "better dress" besides. We may have evening gowns, party dresses - but this one is our Sunday best, set aside for the day of the Lord. When we put it on, we invariably feel some of the Sunday spirit come over us. In those days everybody used to walk to church even though it might amount to a one or two hours' hike down and up a mountain in rain or shine. Families usually went to the High Mass; only those who took care of the little children and the cooking had to go to the early Mass.

“I feel sorry for everyone who has never experienced such a long, peaceful walk home from Sunday Mass, in the same way as I feel sorry for everyone who has never experienced the moments of twilight right after sunset before one would light the kerosene lamps. I know that automobiles and electric bulbs are more efficient, but still they are not complete substitutes for those other, more leisurely ways of living.

Austrian traditional folk dance

Folk dancing outside the village
“Throughout the country, all the smaller towns and villages have their cemeteries around the church; on Sunday, when the High Mass was over, the people would go and look for the graves of their dear ones, say a prayer, sprinkle holy water - a friendly Sunday visit with the family beyond the grave.

“In most homes the Sunday dinner was at noon. The afternoon was often spent in visiting from house to house, especially visiting the sick. The young people would meet on the village green on Sunday afternoons for hours of folk dancing; the children would play games; the grownups would very often sit together and make music. Sunday afternoon was a time for rejoicing, for being happy, each one following in his own way. …

"On Sunday our family often walked to the village church for High Mass, especially after we had started to sing. Later we used to go into the mountains with the children, taking along even the quite little ones, or we used to play an Austrian equivalent of baseball or volleyball, or we sat together and sang some of the songs we had collected ourselves on our hikes through the mountains. We also did a good deal of folk dancing, we had company come or we went visiting ourselves - just as everybody else used to do. And if anybody had asked us why we began our Sunday on Saturday in the late afternoon, why we celebrated our Sunday this way, we would have raised our eyebrows slightly and said, "Well, because that's the way it's always been done."

“And then we came to America”

Further on, Maria von Trapp describes the shock of finding a quite different Sunday routine in the United States:

“In the first weeks we were too bewildered by too many things to notice any particular difference about the Sunday, but I remember missing the sound of the church bells. When I asked why the bells of St. Patrick's Cathedral do not ring on Sunday morning, I was told, to my boundless astonishment, that it would be too much noise. These were the days when the elevated trains was still thundering above Sixth Avenue. Never before had we heard noise like this in the heart of a city! …

“As we got more used to being in America and as our English progressed, we made a startling discovery Saturday night in America! It was so utterly different from what we were used to. Everybody seemed to be out. The stores were open until 10 p.m., and people went shopping. Practically everybody seemed to go to a show or a dance or a party on Saturday night. And finally we discovered the consequence of the American Saturday night: the American Sunday morning. Towns abandoned, streets empty, everybody sleeping until the last minute and then whizzing in his car around the corner to the eleven o'clock Sunday service.

American street in the 1950's

Sunday is a shopping day in the U.S.
“Once we were driving on a Sunday morning through the countryside in the State of Washington and we saw trucks and cars lined up along the fields and people picking berries just as on any other day. To see the farmers working on a Sunday all across the country is not unusual to us anymore, and this happens not only during the most pressing seasons for crops.

“When we lived in a suburb of Philadelphia in our second year in this country, we found that the rich man's Sunday delight seemed to consist of putting on his oldest torn pants and cutting his front lawn, or washing his car with a hose, or even cutting down a tree (doctor's orders exercise!); while the ladies could be seen in dirty blue jeans mixing dirt and transplanting their perennials. There was none of that serenity and peace of the old-world Sunday anywhere…

“The climax of our discoveries about the American Sunday was reached when a lady exclaimed to us with real feeling, ‘Oh, how I hate Sunday! What a bore!’ I can still hear the shocked silence that followed this remark. The children looked hurt and outraged, almost as if they expected fire to rain from heaven. Even the offender noticed something, and that made her explain why she hated Sunday as vigorously as she did. It explained a great deal of the mystery of the American Sunday.

Sunday casual dress

Casual - even sloppy - Sunday dress is common today
“’Why,’ she burst out, ‘I was brought up the Puritan way. Every Saturday night our mother used to collect all our toys and lock them up. On Sunday morning we children had to sit through a long sermon which we didn't understand; we were not allowed to jump or run or play.’ When she met the unbelieving eyes of our children, she repeated, ‘Yes, honestly, no play at all.’ Finally one of ours asked: "But what were you allowed to do?’

“‘We could sit on the front porch with the grownups or read the Bible. That was the only book allowed on Sunday.’ And she added: ‘Oh, how I hated Sunday when I was young. I vowed to myself that when I grew up I would do the dirtiest work on Sunday, and if I should have children, they would be allowed to do exactly as they pleased. They wouldn't even have to go to church.’

“This was the answer. The pendulum had swung out too far to one side, and now it was going just as far in the other direction; let us hope it will find its proper position soon.”

Sadly, the custom of keeping Sunday holy and joyous, truly the Lord’s Day, has fallen even more out of practice in our days. I hope that this description of the natural and Catholic Austrian customs will cause my readers to think about how they prepare for Sunday and live the day.

Posted September 3, 2010

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