Swiss customs: charming, amusing and rather brutal
Switzerland is a country of traditions. The list “Lebendige Traditionen Schweiz” (Living Swiss traditions) runs to 199 customs. Some of them are charming, others amusing – and a number of them are almost brutal. They all share a long history, one that lives on to this day. We present eight of these traditions.
The Spaniards have got castanets, the natives of the canton of Schwyz have chlefeli. These are small pieces of wood with an indentation on one side. And like castanets, chlefeli are also used in rhythmic music-making. To create a sound with the chlefeli, they are clamped together in twos or threes between the fingers of one hand and moved energetically. They can be heard predominantly during Lent. Chlefeli are believed to originate from leper rattles. In the Middle Ages, lepers and the sick had to announce themselves with a wooden clapper, so that healthy people could keep their distance.
Many people know the custom from the story “A Bell for Ursli”. The festival of the winter is celebrated each year in the canton of Grisons with Chalandamarz. The word is a Romansh term referring to the start of the month of March. On this day, schoolchildren with bells and whips move around the village fountain and go from house to house. They sing Chalandamarz songs as they go. Their loud hustle and bustle is intended to drive out the winter.
The Alpine descent is one of the most well-known traditional Alpine festivals. After they have spent the summer on the lush Alpine meadow, cows, sheep and goats come back down the mountain into the valley in late summer. This return is celebrated. The animals are decorated with garlands of flowers and bells for the descent. Even the herdsmen wear festive clothes. They lead the animals through the village and finally into their winter quarters. The Alpine descents constitute the end of a busy summer on the mountain and the shepherds receive appreciation for their work.
Every year on the last weekend in September, the people of Neuchâtel celebrate an ostentatious wine festival. On these days, the entire city centre becomes a party mile. There are also three parades, spread out over the weekend. In addition to the children’s procession and a parade of marching band music, the flower parade on the Sunday afternoon forms the highlight of the festival. Up to 20 parade floats with a particular slogan travel through the town. They are decorated with tens of thousands of colourful flowers.
On St Martin’s Day, 11 November, geese in Sursee get it in the neck. In the Gansabhauet tradition, young men and women are blindfolded and, wearing a mask in the shape of a shining sun, attempt to sever the neck of a hung, dead goose with a blunt dragoon’s sword. Between 5 and 20 blows are needed to complete the task. The spectacle takes place on a stage outside the town hall. The origins of this custom are as yet unclear, though they are believed to date back to the late Middle Ages.
Nünichlingler (nine o’clock chimers)
There’s something scary about them, the men, who gather in Ziefen in the canton of Basel-Landschaft every Christmas Eve for this secretive noisy custom. They wear long coats and have bells hanging around their necks. On the final stroke of nine o’clock, the processions starts moving. The troop is headed by the angry man. He is the only one with a white beard and carries a long staff with him, from which hangs a soot-blackened rag. He uses it to mark curious onlookers with a speck of soot. The others wear top hats up to four metres high. The procession through the village lasts around 45 minutes, and not a word is spoken. Only the bells ring in time with their steps.
Today it is the largest traditional gathering: wrestlers, herdsmen and people in traditional dress come together in Interlaken for this superlative folklore event. The Unspunnen festival began in 1805 as a festival of reconciliation between the city and the rural population. When the organisation of the third event got underway in 1905, the intention was to make it a tourist event, given that tourism was celebrating its hundredth anniversary. Since 1946, the festival has taken place roughly every 12 years. The last festival took place in 2017.
Every year on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, lots of singing can be heard in the centre of Zug. The reason is chrööpfelimee. This involves groups of singers moving through the town to serenade couples who are engaged or newly married. As a thank-you gift, they receive a basket with doughnuts – chrööpfeli – and wine. This basket is lowered down on a rope from the living room or from the balcony. The Chrööpfelimee tradition is over 250 years old and harks back to days gone by when young men and women often became acquainted while dancing during Lent. If they hit it off, the future son-in-law would visit the girl’s family home on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Friends of the couple would do this too: on this evening, they would also go to the girl’s family home, where they would sing all kinds of love songs from beneath the window.