Farming life at the foothills of the Alps, and thus Swiss culture, once was riddled with mystery. In constant competition with nature, towns were routinely swept away by avalanches, wolves stalked sheep, and winter nights were long and dark.

These harsh conditions were a fertile breeding ground for some rather unique traditions and rituals, some of which have survived to this day. Be it giant bonfires to light up the night, scary masks to chase away demons, or fertility rituals for prosperity – there are numerous unique winter traditions in Swiss culture.

In some cases, their purpose is related to the Christian religion, including the Swiss carnivals. Other rituals are rooted in Pagan beliefs. In either case, these Swiss living traditions are unique in the world.

Here are some unique living traditions that define Swiss culture during the winter months:

Vogel Gryff in Basel

Every January, the symbolic Vogel Gryff ritual takes place in the middle of Basel. The ceremony dates back to the middle ages and features three protagonists: a savage man hauling a pine tree, a lion, and a griffin. They represent Rebhaus, Hären, and Greifen, the societies of Kleinbasel.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

By the sound of drums and gun salutes, the three can be spotted on the Middle Bridge at 11 AM as they bow, dance, and greet onlookers while always facing Kleinbasel. The Vogel Gryff Festival takes place alternately on January 13, 20, or 27.

Hornschlittenrennen sledge races in Braunwald

One weekend in February, the slopes of Braunwald are in the name of sleds. On Saturday, there is traditionally a race for all ages. And on Sunday, costumed teams and their handcrafted sleds of all shapes and sizes take over as part of the Horä-Schlittä-Rännä.

The Hornschlitten race may only have been around for 30-plus years, but it has everything it takes to sustain the next centuries. The 36th edition will take place on Feb 5, 2022.

Copyright Hornschlitten Club Braunwald

Hom Strom burning in Scuol

Every first Saturday of February, the boys of Scuol are tasked with gathering straw from local farmers. All the donated straw is collected on the “Plaz” village square, where it is shaped into a man, the Hom Strom. (When rye straw was more common, there used to be a competition among neighborhoods for the biggest and most handsome Hom Strom.)

Way back, the burning of Hom Strom may have been a sort of offering from farmers to the gods for an opportune harvest. Today, this Swiss culture still culminates in the burning of the straw man at 8 PM. But it is also a social outing for the Scuol locals who share a common experience by singing the Chanzun dal Hom Strom song.

Carnaval des Franches-Montagnes in Noirmont

Rather fitting for the rural canton of Jura is the Carnaval des Franches-Montagnes. The carnival starts with the release of the savages from the forests on the full moon before Lent. Once they reach the village, the ladies recognize each young man hiding behind the costume. Those who provoke the savages are tossed into the village fountain with their face blackened.

The baitchai is a communal parade on Shrove Monday to chase away evil spirits. Open to anyone, this cheerful happening is quite an antidote to the release of the savages.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

Urnäscher Bloch in Urnäsch

Every two years, on Monday before Ash Wednesday, a peculiar carnival tradition occurs in the villages of Appenzell. Urnäscher Bloch is supposed to be a funeral procession whereby a log is placed on a cart and pulled by local men. Each man is dressed in a traditional costume signifying a type of lumber trade.

The log is decorated and even carries a wood-burning oven. Starting in Urnäsch at 4:30 AM (!), the men would pull this “hearse” through Hundwil, Stein, and Waldstatt before returning at 5 PM. Unfortunately, this year’s edition, including the log auction, has been canceled. The next opportunity to see this carnival funeral will be on Feb 20, 2023.

Copyright Appenzellerland Tourismus

Carnaval d’Evolène in Evolène

There is a chance that this mountain carnival dates back to prehistoric times when the first masks were made. Celtic tribes who lived in today’s Valais practiced some winter rituals involving masks, too.

Either way, the Carnaval d’Evolène has taken place from Epiphany through Shrove Tuesday for as long as anyone can remember. It is rooted in the history of the area and in the lives of its residents.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

On Friday and Saturday nights, the streets of Evolène fill with strange creatures. These straw men, called Empaillés, are using their brooms to scare away winter (as well as a certain Coronavirus).

Rölli in Walenstadt

The children of Walenstadt can recognize a Rolli in their sleep. These masked jaspers are on the loose from noon on Sunday until the evening of Shrove Tuesday, chasing after kids and teens.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

The Stadtner Fasnacht is renowned for its carnival groups, some wearing intricate wooden masks. The masks depict Pagan demons called “Butzi.” The “Alte,” pictured below, is among the oldest of the 14 “Rölli” characters. It is believed to be nearly 200 years in the making and can be recognized by the red cheeks, and the tree of life painted on the forehead.

Brotauswerfen bread tossing in Einsiedeln

Listen up, bread lovers: the old town of Einsiedeln is the place to be every Shrove Tuesday! On three stages, masked jaspers would dance and prance, casually tossing some 9000 Mütschli bread loaves into the crowds.

Copyright STV Einsiedeln

Those shouting “I mir eis, i mir eis” and who catch the attention of a Bajass (buffoon), a Johee (farmer), or a Mummerie (bankrupt horse dealer) might just get lucky…

Brotauswerfen started in the 17th century as a way of feeding the poor. I have attended Brotusrüerete (as we called it) during my childhood – but not because we were poor!

Eis, Zwei, Geissebei in Rapperswil

I also have childhood memories of screaming “One, Two, Goat Leg!” at the town hall of Rapperswil… This tradition may go back to 1350, when residents would hand out food to starving children in the alleys.

Today, the food is no longer handed out but rather tossed into the crowds from the town hall’s upper floors. At exactly 3:15 PM, i.e. 15:15 local time, the windows open and council members start throwing sausages, loaves of bread, and Biberli pastries onto the square below. It’s a definite must-see tradition in Switzerland.

Copyright Roland ZH/Wikipedia

Chesslete in Solothurn

The carnival in the beautiful Baroque town of Solothurn has a long tradition. On Fat Thursday at 5 AM sharp, the events are kicked off with Chesslete. Using bells and ratchets, the participants commence chasing away what is left of winter. Unique is also their outfit: everyone is dressed in a white nightgown with a pointy hat and a red scarf.

9 Swiss winter traditions that are truly unique

In the first post of traditions that define Swiss culture (above), I have covered a giant sled race and a bread bun tossing tradition. The list goes on chronologically with traditions taking place between Ash Wednesday and mid-April.

Here are even more winter traditions that define Swiss culture during the cold months:

Tschäggättä in the Lötschental Valley

In the Löschental, a part of the Upper Valais, Tschäggättä are known to spread fear and terror. As they chase through the local villages every night, these creatures wear scary wooden masks, animal skins, and a bell around their waists.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

The parade from Blatten to Ferden on Fat Thursday presents a chance to experience the Tschäggättä. Also, there is a carnival procession in the town of Wiler the following Saturday afternoon. Mark my words: if you don’t run away fast enough, you are at serious risk of being hugged by a hairy monster.

Gidio Hosestoss in Herisau

While researching the various carnivals in Switzerland, I came across a rather odd tradition in Herisau. Let me try to sum up Gidio Hosestoss: it’s a funeral procession for a deceased man who had choked on a stolen Läckerli cookie.

For more than 150 years, Ash Wednesday marks the sending-off of Herisau’s most famous resident: Gidio Hosestoss. In the parade through the old town, school children will pull the hearse that is being followed by mourning relatives.

One of the youngsters, the Gidiopfarrer, has the task of rehearsing a eulogy where he cunningly incorporates the previous year’s happenings in Herisau.

Pschuuri-Mittwoch in Splügen

This local tradition in Splügen is a highlight for many school children. In the morning, they go from house to house, collecting sweets. But they’d better be careful as in the afternoon, the scary Pschuurirolli appear.

Copyright Andy Storchenegger

These are local bachelors disguised in furs and sporting bells around their waists. During this fertility tradition, these “beasts” have only one thing in mind: to capture unmarried women and children and to blacken their faces with ash!

In the evening, those same bachelors dress like women and men. Residents visited by a Männli und Wibli couple are supposed to give them eggs – unless they recognize who is below the costume.

Chienbäse in Liestal (Sunday after Ash Wednesday)

This pyromaniac festival takes place outside of carnival season. Every Sunday night, just hours before Basler Fasnacht kicks off, the town of Liestal quite literally goes up in flames.

Copyright Samuel Miller

This parade of torches was invented in 1924 by a local baker. He used the Chien wood preferred by bakers to create large Bäse brooms, hence this tradition’s name. We have collected lots of impressions and how to see Chienbäse.

Scheibenschlagen in Danis and Dardin

On the first Saturday of Lent, the local boys create discs from trunks of alder and oak wood. This ritual is in preparation for a Pagan tradition called Scheibenschlagen – the hitting of discs unique to this town in Grisons.

Copyright Josef Saurwein/Wikipedia

After youth mass, the boys would converge on the Chistatscha, an elevated spot, where the discs are burned until they glow ember. With a type of golf swing made of hazelwood, each boy then hits a disc towards the valley, meanwhile making a wish involving a girl’s name. Down in the village, the girls try to tell the future as they watch hundreds of glowing discs spin across the night sky.

Chalandamarz in the Engadine (March 1)

Eastern Switzerland is home to one charming “Bell Dorado.” Usually, every March 1, boys will walk the streets and alleys with bells strapped around their waists. They aim to create as much noise as possible. That’s because the belief behind this tradition is that the noise will make evil spirits vanish, hence opening the stage for springtime.

Copyright Claudio Schneider/Wikipedia

This ancient tradition in the Albula and Engadine valleys, the Val Mustair and Oberhalbstein is rooted in Pagan beliefs. The most iconic setting to catch the bell boys is Guarda in the Lower Engadine. The popular children’s book, Schellen-Ursli, tells the story of one of those bell boys.

Lichterschwemmen floats in Ermensee (March 6)

Every year on March 6, the school kids light up the Aabach creek in Ermensee. Their wooden floats are decorated with candles and will silently float down the stream where they are retrieved. The idea behind this quiet ritual is to send the light “down the creek” as it will no longer be required to light up the indoors.

Copyright Kulturverein Ermensee

Funkensonntag in Appenzell Innerrhoden

This living tradition dates back to the onset of the 19th century and starts with a communal effort. About halfway through Lent, Appenzell and surrounding villages’ school children are tasked with collecting anything burnable. From untreated wood to paper and cardboard, on the fourth Sunday during Lent, the collections are stacked on several large piles.

On top of each pile, look out for the explosive Funkebaabe character, which symbolizes winter. The point is to create an explosion and chase away winter, but Funkensonntag is about much more.

Towns such as Ried have torch parades, some kids can be seen smoking for the first time (!), and then, there is the pure spectacle of oversize bonfires lighting up the night.

Sechseläuten in Zürich

The quintessential spring tradition of Zürich involves elaborate parades featuring the historic guilds. There is a children’s parade on Sunday. And on Monday, a city-wide holiday, the main parade showcases men (and some women) in medieval costumes, riding horses and wagons.

A kind of Swiss Groundhog Day, the climax of Sechseläuten is the ritual burning of a snowman on top of a giant bonfire. The shorter the time until its head explodes, the better the expected weather conditions for summer.

In the aftermath of the Monday parade, many locals will meet up at the bonfire in front of the opera house for a down-to-earth tradition: the “common people” of Zürich will BBQ sausages in the massive fire.

Which of these Swiss winter traditions would you like to witness in your lifetime?

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By admintq