Egg battles, ‘snowman’ burning and chasing winter spirits are just some of the traditional Swiss customs to celebrate in spring and winter.
There are more older Swiss traditions in the spring and winter months than in the summer, particularly revolving around Easter, Christmas and New Year in Switzerland. This is mainly because there was always more farming work to do in the summer and the people simply had more time during the cold winter months.
The traditions between winter and spring could not be more diverse, with Christmas as a time of quiet contemplation contrasting starkly with boisterous processions to drive out demons and the cold winter weather. Get a taste of traditional culture in Switzerland at one of their spring or winter Swiss festivals.
The best of Switzerland’s spring customs
Even today, the expulsion of winter and of evil spirits and demons forms an integral part of Swiss tradition, a tradition that is linked to the numerous carnival ceremonies.
Besides Swiss Easter celebrations and Zurich’s Sechseläuten (ringing of the bells), some spring customs that create a regional spectacle every year include:
- The rousing Chalandamarz bell procession held in the Engadin valley in early March, where children dress up and parade through town clanging bells so the grass grows better.
- The Vignolage ceremony in Sierre and around Valais, where groups march accompanied by pipes and drums, a tradition with military roots which dates back to medieval times.
- The singing children at the Feuillu parade in Cartigny, which celebrates the return of spring to Geneva in early May; the Feuillu (broad-leafed tree) is a figure made from branches and twigs.
- the Auffahrts-Umritt procession in Beromünster is a religous celebration on Ascension Day, where a parade of horses and locals follow a route alongside the Most Holy Sacrament.
Sechseläuten: Burn the Böögg!
In Zurich the winter officially ends with the traditional ‘Sechseläuten‘ holiday, which literally means the ringing of the six o’clock bells. It is usually held on the third Sunday/Monday in April, or one week later if it happens to coincide with Easter.
The spring festival should actually be held in March but it was postponed by one month because the weather was usually unreliable. The famous Sechseläuten dates back to 1818 when a guild (trade association) was first formed and held night-time processions – on horseback and with a musical accompaniment. By the following year there were already several guilds parading through the town to music and carrying flares, and by 1820 there were initial signs of a coordinated procession. The first Sechseläuten procession took place in 1839, with all the guilds taking part.
Since 1862 the Sechseläuten has culminated in the burning of the giant ‘Böögg‘, an 80kg ‘snowman’ more than 3m tall, which is filled with fireworks and set alight at 6pm. When the head of the Böögg explodes, it signals the official end of winter. Tradition has it that the quicker it explodes, the hotter and longer the summer will be.
The Eierläset egg race festival is an ancient spring tradition and fertility ritual to banish the winter, practised by local gymnastics clubs in many villages in the cantons of Aargau, Solothurn and Basel-Land. Two tracks are laid out, each one containing 80 to 100 heaps of sawdust with an egg in each heap. There are two opposing teams, one representing winter and the other representing spring. Each team has several runners and one or two catchers. The race between spring and winter then commences. The runners sprint to the egg which is farthest away, pick it up, hurry back and throw it to the catcher who is holding a large basket. If an egg falls on the ground the runner has to go back and cover the distance again, but without picking up another egg and taking it to the catcher. The same task is repeated by all the other runners in the team. There is also a special task every 10 eggs. The team which is first to collect all the eggs and take them to the catcher wins, but occasionally the players will bend the rules to make sure that spring prevails.
Some villages in the canton of Aargau add their own twist to the event by introducing characters with elaborately designed costumes, such as the Schnäggehüsler in a snail shell costume, the Stächpälmler dressed as a holly bush, or the Pfarrer who is a priest figure. These characters are meant to represent the winter or spring and symbolic fights break out between the two sides while the race is going on.
Easter egg battles in Switzerland
Easter is central to Christianity and therefore many customs also have a religious background. Every region celebrates in its own way – but the Eiertütsche egg battle is known all over Switzerland and involves hitting the tip of an opponent’s egg with the tip of the most decorative egg. The person whose egg breaks has to give it to the owner of the winning egg.
In the city of Bern the Eiertütschen is a public event which is held in the old part of town – reviving a local custom which had almost died out until recently.
The ancient Zurich tradition of the ‘Zwänzgerle’ Easter egg game takes some skill and the custom was designed to provide a bit of extra pocket money for the children (although it has not been adapted to inflation for technical reasons). The rules are simple: The children stand facing the adults holding up their hard-boiled decorated eggs and the adults have to throw small coins at the eggs. The aim is to get the coins to rest on the eggs or penetrate the shells. If the coin drops then the child keeps the egg and the coin, but if the ‘Zwänzgerli’ coin stays on the egg then the person who threw it keeps the egg and the coin. Head to Rüdenplatz to play.
Passiontide and Easter in Switzerland
The Easter processions in Mendrisio are re-enactments of Christ’s walk to Golgotha, with some 200 people playing the parts of Jews and Romans who were involved in the crucifixion of Christ. This tradition goes back to at least 1600 or thereabouts.
Another custom linked to an ancient 15th-century tradition is called the Pleureuses von Romont. When the Bible reading of the Passion narrative reaches the point of mourning for Jesus, a group of women with veiled faces and clothed in black begins a procession. They carry the emblems of Christ’s martyrdom on scarlet cushions, namely the crown of thorns, scourges, nails, hammer and pincers. The Virgin Mary leads the procession with the one who atoned, bearing the cross.
Other customs include:
- the Chlefele in Schwyz, where schoolchildren make a rattling sound with their ‘clefeli‘ (little hand-held boards with notches for fingers).
- the festive Palm Sunday processions and musical concerts in the canton of Lucerne,
- The Surrexit-Singen in Estavayer-le-Lac where men proclaim the Easter message at midnight in song, accompanied by brass instruments, starting in front of the church, then in the cemetery and finally in the whole village.
Some Easter traditions have died out completely while others have been revived and new ones have been started. In the town of Nyon in the west of Switzerland, for example, it is traditional at Easter to find decorated fountains. The tradition is only about 30 years old but hardly any of the present organisers can remember where the idea actually came from.
Swiss winter customs: The banishment of winter traditions
Many winter customs revolve around the banishment of spirits, demons and the winter, or they are connected with religious festivals or the New Year, but there are some traditions which do not quite fit into any of these categories.
- the Peitschenknallen whip-cracking competition in Schwyz
- the sleigh ride for young singles called the Schlittéda in the Engadin valley
- the setting alight of the straw dummy at the L’Hom Strom festival in Scuol
- the romantic Lichterschwemmen festival of floating lights in Ermensee lake.
In Untervaz boys and single men stand on a hill and throw red-hot wooden discs into the valley at the Schiibaschlaha (or ‘Trer Schibettas‘ in the Rhaeto-Romance dialect) ritual on the first Sunday in Lent. Each fiery disc is dedicated to a girl or a single woman as it is thrown with a loud cry of, “Höut un dära sei si, dia Schiiba, dia Schiiba ghört dr Anna,” while the band accompanies the people who have gathered in the village square as they sing the disc thrower song. This tradition exists in a similar form in some other cantons, such as Basel-Land (‘Reedlischigge‘ or ‘Schyblischiesse‘), Glarus (Schybefleuge) and Solothurn (Scheibensprengen).
St Nicholas’ Day traditions
The customs surrounding St Nicholas are concentrated on the eve of St Nicholas’ Day (6 December), although they start at the end of November in the Glarus Region and end at the beginning of January in the Appenzeller Hinterland. The celebrations on St Nicholas’ Day itself (‘Samichlaus‘ in German-speaking Switzerland) are predominantly for children. In Catholic areas children learn special Samichlaus verses which they then recite to Samichlaus (bishop figure) and his helpers (Schmutzli, Butzli, père fouettard) in return for sweets. There are female equivalents of Samichlaus in Italian-speaking Ticino (Befana) and in French-speaking Switzerland (Chauche-vieille).
Swiss Christmas traditions
In 325 the Council of Nicaea pinpointed 25 December as the date of the birth of Christ. By choosing a date near the winter solstice they hoped to eclipse the pagan midwinter rituals and festivities. It started out as a purely religious festival but gradually evolved into a family celebration centred around the Christmas meal. The tradition of giving gifts and the Christmas tree only started spreading in the 20th century from larger towns and cities to the villages.
The general tradition in Ticino is to set up the nativity scene in the home and to put up a fir tree with decorations in the village square. Songs and instrumentals have become fundamental elements of a traditional Christmas in Switzerland. It is popular to make music in the home during the Advent season but there are also church concerts, trumpet fanfares from towers, carol singing, public singing and the serenades of the Salvation Army. They are often held to collect money for good causes and people are increasingly donating to such good causes instead of exchanging gifts.
Epiphany carol singing
Epiphany carol singing, a custom which falls between the fourth Sunday in Advent and Twelfth Night (6 January), has its roots in medieval plays. The Epiphany carol singers, who are often children dressed up as the three wise men or a choir bearing the star, sing on village squares or go from house to house, symbolising the fellowship of all parishioners. In Lucerne and Wettingen, canton of Aargau, the Epiphany carol singers perform a play on the Sunday before Christmas.
New Year’s customs
It is not only corks which people hear popping on New Year’s Eve. The end of the year is marked by loud processions in many places with masked figures, the sound of fireworks and drums, the ringing of bells and the cracking of whips. There is a belief that this New Year’s Eve tradition will ward off demons and evil spirits.
Again, the way in which this belief is enacted differs greatly from region to region. The noise at the Schulsilvester, a traditional New Year’s Eve school in Zurich, is made by a crowd of children and young people while the Trychle procession in Meiringen involves young men with cowbells. In Wil children with brightly coloured lanterns process through the dark streets, and at the Silvesterdreschen New Year’s Eve threshing in Hallwil the old year is thrashed out with rhythmic beating of the threshing board. In Urnäsch the men at the Silvesterklausen New Year’s Eve parade go from house to house – and, in the evening, from restaurant to restaurant – accompanied by the ringing of bells.
Shrove Tuesday customs
The aim common to Shrovetide celebrations in all parts of Switzerland is to indulge in all possible excesses one last time before Lent, to enjoy a time of merrymaking and revelry, and to take on a different identity momentarily by wearing masks and fancy dress costumes. Otherwise the Shrovetide celebrations and traditions vary somewhat from one region to another – as is typical of Switzerland, with its confederate structure.
The Shrovetide customs are a mixture of various pagan spring rites, Christian rituals and secular folk traditions. In some cantons the Shrovetide celebrations are predominantly based on the heathen custom of liberating the sun from the oppressive clutches of winter demons, making an almighty noise to hasten the release and wearing masks to drive out evil spirits and the winter.
The most famous events include the Basel and Lucerne Shrovetide carnival celebrations, the Rabadan carnival festival in Bellinzona, the Chienbäse procession in Liestal and the Tschäggättä parade in Lötschental. Other Shrovetide traditions include the Shrovetide carnival in Solothurn, the Greth-Schell ceremony in Zug and the Gidio Hosestoss ceremony in Herisau. Examples in French-speaking Switzerland include the Shrovetide carnival in Fribourg and the Brandons carnival in Vaud.