An iconic custom from the Appenzell region is even drawing young people to join, complete with yodelling, bell-ringing and fantastic headgear.
Yodelling in the new year wearing a huge headdress and giant cowbells in the frozen countryside may sound more like a comedy than a rite that reduces many Swiss to tears of nostalgic longing.
But the age-old custom is as iconic in the northeast Appenzell region as the country’s cheese with holes, cuckoo clocks and chocolates, and is even drawing young people to join the plucky ‘Silvesterklaeuse’, as the practitioners are known.
The Silvesterklaeuse yodellers
“It always brings tears to my eyes,” said Walter Irniger, who travels to the quiet Appenzell village of Urnaesch every year to watch the klaeuse.
“You often see people cry when they welcome the Silvesterklaeuse. It’s the feeling. It brings back memories,” he said, pointing to his tear-stained cheeks.
The Silvesterklaeuse, or St Sylvester mummers, appear twice each year on December 31 and January 13, trooping through snow from village to village, door-to-door, to ring in the new year.
Velvet costumes and cowbells
Typical was the group who stirred awake Urnaesch: seven men outfitted in colourful velvet costumes and hand-painted masks. Each wore a massive headpiece made of carved wood, sequins and lights depicting a Swiss river landscape.
Outside one farmhouse, they bounced into action – shaking vigorously to set off the cowbells, each a different pitch. When that dies down, they yodel – the trilling song style associated with the Swiss-Austrian mountains that, theory holds, was meant to carry across hill and dale.
For Urnaesch farmer Christean Mittler, it is “simply joy” to wake up to all this.
The roots of the ritual, whether pagan or religious, have become fuzzy with time. When asked why they cling to it, most locals – some whose thickly accented Swiss-German dialect leaves speakers from other parts of the country struggling to understand – can’t explain.
“For me, the day of the Sylvester (Saint Sylvester or New Year’s eve) is the most important in the year,” said Stefan Walser, 45, a Silvesterklaeus for the past 15 years.
“It’s a malady, a fever. It brings emotions that are very difficult to explain. I ask myself what would happen if I couldn’t do this anymore, and to be honest, I don’t want to know,” he said.
The origins of the Sylvester
The two dates go back to a 16th century dispute over New Year’s eve, according to Urnaesch’s Brauchtumsmuseum, or museum of traditions. Many locals opposed the new calendar proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII setting December 31 as the new year and wanted to stick to January 13, in line with the old Julian calendar. So over the years, the region decided to celebrate both.
Among the younger set, 20-year-old Ueli Rechsteiner estimates that at least 100 others around his age have joined as Silvesterklaeuse, despite the hefty time commitment this requires.
Each group builds its headgear around the same theme, which they change every three years. Walser said it can take months to design and fabricate.
Themes are not limited to folklore – one group had regional leisure activities, clanging and yodelling from house to house with figurines of gymnasts on parallel bars, skiers whizzing down slopes and footballers battling it out on a pitch atop their heads.
Others displayed daily life – farmers herding cows, carpenters at work, even families eating dinner. Photos at the Brauchtumsmuseum even show models of the Titanic and a Zeppelin on old headgear.
Though women can be Silvesterklaeuse, most are men due to the strength needed to trudge for hours with an average 30-kilo (66-pound) structure on one’s head.
When asked why he joined, the young Rechsteiner said only for “tradition”.
“Our lives are very modern now. People are looking for the old days,” said Irniger.