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Winter Customs

Windows of a shop in Lucerne decorated for Advent with the days of the month and seasonal pictures (in new window)

People in different parts of Switzerland often decorate their windows for advent, as here in Lucerne.© swissworld.org

Switzerland has a multitude of customs and traditions that bring a welcome touch of warmth and light to the cold, dark months of winter. One of the reasons why more festivals are held at this time of year is because winter tends to be a relatively quiet time for the farming community.

Advent and Christmas

Advent is the period beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve, historically seen as the preparation for the Birth of Christ. In the past, these four weeks were used to teach children the virtue of patience – hence the development of the advent calendar, which comprises 24 little flaps opening on to windows depicting scenes from the Nativity. Advent calendars are very much a part of the Swiss Christmas tradition, as is the Advent crown which has four candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent (on the first Sunday, one candle is burnt, on the second, two are lit, and so on).

Christmas

In Switzerland, snow may not always be a sure thing at Christmas time. What is, though, is an impressive assortment of festivals and traditional celebrations which are enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. There are Christmas parades where many a reveller enjoys a warming glass of mulled wine, church services, special concerts and carol singing. Indeed, Switzerland has a particularly rich and diverse tradition of carol singing due to its position at the heart of Europe and its multilingual status. But, as in other countries, many children in Switzerland now associate Christmas more with the arrival of Santa Claus than the birth of Jesus.

Trychle in Meiringen

Midnight on 25 December heralds the start of a rambunctious procession through Meiringen and neighbouring villages in the Bernese Oberland, which will take place every evening up to and including New Year’s Eve. With large cowbells (“Trychler”) strapped to their chest or carrying drums, masked locals march through the streets trying to make as much noise as possible in a bid to ward off evil spirits.

Silvesterkläuse in Urnäsch

The “Silvesterkläuse” is a tradition that is almost entirely confined to the Urnäsch area of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. The best-known “Kläuse” wear female or male masks and costumes with huge cowbells back and front and carry enormous headdresses.
They go from farmhouse to farmhouse, wishing the families a Happy New Year. The tradition dates back to 1852 and the reform of the old Julian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which was rejected by the mostly Protestant people of Appenzell. This is why the Silvesterkläuse celebrate on 13 January, the date of New Year according to the Julian calendar.

Epiphany and star singing

“Star singing” is a widespread custom which is practiced, mostly by children, from the last week of Advent to Epiphany (6 January). It takes its name from the star that the singers carry, representing the star that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem. The children, some dressed as the magi, go from door to door, parade through the streets or simply stand in the village square, while they sing a series of carols and hymns.

Vogel Gryff in Kleinbasel

Kleinbasel, the part of Basel on the right bank of the Rhine, provides the setting for the Vogel Gryff festival. The date of the festival rotates according to a three-year cycle between 13,20 and 27 January.
At the centre of the festival are three heraldic figures, the “Vogel Gryff” (griffin), the “Wild Maa” (wild man) and the “Leu” (lion), who dance in the streets of the town. Festivities begin with the Wild Maa floating down the Rhine on a raft, where he is joined by his companions. All three take care always to dance with their backs to the left bank – a show of disdain for their rich neighbours of Grossbasel. These heraldic figures represent the former honourable societies of Kleinbasel, which performed mainly political and military functions. Festivities end with a celebratory dinner and dancing in the town.

Tschäggättä

From 3 February to Ash Wednesday masked “Tschäggätta” parade through the villages of the Lötschental in the canton of Valais. These masked figures get their name from the black and white colour of the goat or sheep skin tunics that they traditionally wear (“tschäggätta” means piebald in the local dialect).
The tradition was originally a courtship ritual practiced only by the local bachelors. Times have changed and now anyone can join in. For the deeply religious inhabitants of the Lötschen valley, these distinctive and somewhat demonic-looking masks represented anarchy, rebellion and chaos.

Carnival

Carnival, or Fastnacht as it is known in German-speaking Switzerland, heralds the end of winter and is celebrated across the country. However, the timing of these extravaganzas varies from one canton to the next. The Basel and Lucerne carnivals are the biggest and best known carnivals. This ancient tradition is a blend of Christian rites, secular folk customs and pagan spring festivals. In some cantons, carnival is based around the pagan custom of using demonic looking masks to chase away evil spirits. Masks and costumes help people take on a new identity while they parade through the streets, often playing musical instruments.

Basel

Basel carnival (Fasnacht) is one of the most extravagant traditions in Switzerland. At 4 am precisely the Morgestraich begins, heralding the start of festivities in the city on the Rhine. The streetlights are switched off, throwing the city centre into darkness. Soon the stirring sound of piccolos and drums are heard, and a motley crowd of masked and costumed figures burst into view.
The Basel Fasnacht tradition dates back to the 14th century and is held on the Monday following Ash Wednesday.  After the dawn procession, festivities continue throughout the day, much in the same vein, with music, processions and plenty of noise. In the evening cafés and restaurants provide a forum for the “Schnitzelbänke”, a collection of satirical verses and songs on local political issues.

Lucerne

Lucerne carnival also dates back to the Middle Ages. Its central figure is Brother Fritschi, a legendary historical figure from the city’s history and a symbol of fertility. Carnival begins with the arrival of Brother Fritschi on the Thursday before Lent at 5 am. In the afternoon of “Dirty Thursday”, as the day is called locally, a masked and fancy dress parade makes its way through the city.